A quick opinion poll: The mass murders of Sept. 11, 2001, were allowed to happen because:
Letting airline passengers carry potentially deadly weapons such as
box-cutters was a bad idea.
B. Airport security is a job
too important to delegate to corporations.
doors were either unlocked or missing.
D. Americans enjoy
so much freedom that law enforcement officials lacked the power to
prevent the attacks.
John Ashcroft and George Bush may
have opted for “D,” but they haven’t convinced
folks in my home of Bozeman, Mont. Our city commissioners’
meeting hall couldn’t hold the crowd that turned out recently
when an anti-Patriot Act resolution was on the agenda. Most
residents came to say they thought the Patriot Act threatened their
personal freedom, and they applauded when Bozeman joined more than
80 Western communities —over 175 nationwide — and the
states of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont in passing a resolution
opposing the Patriot Act.
Similar scenes are occurring
elsewhere, from college towns like Boulder, Colo., to conservative
rural towns like Dillon, Mont., and North Pole, Alaska. Support
also spans the political spectrum within communities. In Boise,
Idaho, the Green Party and the Gun Owners of America are working
side by side to press for a local anti-Patriot Act
These resolutions are an
extraordinary demonstration of grassroots opposition to federal
policy, and they’ve become more than symbolic. The resistance
is credited with sparking bills like the one from Idaho Republican
Rep. Butch Otter. His measure to halt secret searches of personal
property — as authorized by the Patriot Act — was
approved 309-118. Now, senators from Alaska, California and Oregon
are sponsoring similar bills to repeal or limit the act’s
Ashcroft’s recent public relations tour defending the act
appeared to be a reaction against the local uprisings. Not
surprisingly, Ashcroft failed to quell public concerns by speaking
only to hand-picked audiences and refusing to answer questions from
the press. Just days after his visit to Las Vegas, the city joined
the anti-Patriot Act chorus, and successful resolutions stepped up
around the country.
Bush administration officials claim
that the Patriot Act strikes the “right balance”
between freedom and safety, arguing that terrorism can be defeated
by increasing police power and reducing judicial oversight over
detentions and investigations. But the implicit argument that our
freedom endangers us lacks compelling evidence.
Legalizing more invasive technology and granting law enforcement
agencies sweeping powers to arrest, detain and spy on citizens will
not guarantee our safety. To the contrary, history suggests that
allowing politically based investigations or searches of personal
property — without evidence that passes judicial scrutiny
— simply wastes resources.
COINTELPRO operations of the 1960s and ’70s, which were
documented in the government’s Church Commission Report,
support this conclusion. The farmworker activist Cesar Chavez, for
example, was among those targeted by countless federal
investigations. All produced mountains of files; not one produced
evidence of dangerous activity.
Rather than viewing
political dissent as a danger sign, we should recognize it as a
safety valve that enhances our stability. People who have the
opportunity to create peaceful change are less likely to turn to
violence. Our cherished political freedom contributes heavily to
our comparatively low incidence of domestic terrorism.
This is not to say that the Patriot Act contains no sensible
measures that could increase our safety without infringing on civil
liberties. But the obvious and sensible measures are surrounded by
many more dangerous intrusions on freedom. Attorney General
Ashcroft argued recently that nine out of 10 people polled said the
Patriot Act had not infringed on their personal liberty. It’s
hard not to scoff at this statement, since we are talking about our
freedom, not shooting free throws with a basketball. And how
meaningful is this number when the greatest concern of Patriot Act
opponents is the unprecedented secrecy in which the act is used?
Groups filing Freedom of Information Act requests to learn about
the act get nowhere, or receive documents censored to the point of
Many of our congressional representatives
approved the 342-page Patriot Act without adequate time to
comprehend or even read it. They may have been reassured because
some of its more drastic measures were originally due to expire in
2005. Yet the Bush administration is already seeking to make the
act permanent, while blocking evaluation of the its effectiveness
or consequences. Thankfully, citizens across the political spectrum
are beginning to put the brakes on the federal power-grab. Watch
out, Mr. Bush: Opponents from Greens to gun owners might just put
the Patriot Act into reverse.