Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Temporary Freedom From the Patriot Act

Many Americans have been heard to mimic the media’s disdain for partisan gridlock in Washington, but because Congress and the president often do the wrong thing, it’s often better when nothing is done. For example, after the Congress’s inaction recently allowed sections of the Patriot Act to lapse, I was so ecstatic about my newfound freedom that I, like victims of Soviet oppression when the USSR collapsed, didn’t know what to do with myself. However, my decision on how to take advantage of my freshly won freedom vis-à-vis government surveillance had to be made fast, because that freedom was likely to be short-lived. Congress was likely to soon reform the Patriot Act with the "USA Freedom Act and did."

I didn’t really know any jihadists to call, and even if I did, I would have just told them that they would be better off getting another more benevolent and productive occupation. But at least I was free of the government’s clearly unconstitutional collection of Americans’ phone metadata (call origin, call receiver, duration of conversation, and location information).

Although the politicians in all three branches of government for a time told us that such a provision was constitutional and appropriate, they began to read public opinion polls that expressed concern about the government of a free republic spying on its citizens en masse. Suddenly the tide shifted and an unusual left-right coalition formed for reforming the always-excessive Patriot Act, which was passed in the post-9/11 hysteria of late 2001. Since then, like many other products marketed in America (mouthwash, dandruff shampoo, car tires, etc.), the politicians and the media profited from using fear to convince Americans that the government needed extensive surveillance powers. Never mind that the average American’s chance of ever getting killed by a terrorist is remote – a lower probability than getting struck by lightning. So that is to not to say that no threat exists, but that the public, by being bombarded with all of this external "perception management," was understandably experiencing what experts call "probability neglect" about the actual severity of the threat.

However, public opinion began to shift when Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, exposed the government’s secretive and unconstitutional collection of Americans’ phone records. That policy seemed to go against the very foundations of what the American republic stood for – and its violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which requires government specificity in search warrants to guard against the use of general warrants for surveillance fishing expeditions (the British did such things in colonial times), supports that conclusion. In addition, despite the fact that the government can get as much information from mapping calls using phone records as it can snooping into the actual conversations, it thwarted no act of terrorism by using the phone records program. (I wonder what would happen if the public ever realized that the main cause anti-U.S. Islamist terrorism is jihadist objection to non-Muslim – that is, American – military or covert interventions on Muslim soil, and that since World War II the United States has profligately meddled in the affairs of Islamic countries around the world. However, Americans are not usually big on history, and that fact allows politicians and the media to peddle American nationalism and overseas jingoism as patriotism and love of country. Perhaps patriotism should instead be defined as defending the freedoms of the republic.)

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