Patriot games

When George W. Bush took the oath of office earlier this year, he swore “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” By signing the so-called “USA Patriot Act,” he proved that solemn promise was nothing more than lip service, authorizing a radical increase in federal police powers and making a mockery of the presumption of innocence that forms the basis of the American legal system.

It can’t be that bad, you say? Think again.

Thanks to the Patriot Act, rammed through Congress by Attorney General John Ashcroft in the weeks following the terrorist attacks and eagerly signed by Bush, the federal government can now tap your phone without a specific court order. They can detain you without charges or evidence, and deny you the opportunity to consult privately with an attorney while you’re being held. They can monitor your use of the Internet, secretly search your home or business and examine your financial records. All that is necessary in order for the feds to exercise these blatant violations of your constitutional rights is for the attorney general’s office to suspect that you have participated in what it defines as terrorist activity or associated with people it deems terrorists. Once that happens, you have few, if any, legal rights.

All of this might be well and good if we could trust the government to use its sweeping new powers judiciously and only violate the rights of evildoers. But if history has taught us anything, it is that once the constitutional checks on federal power are suspended, the government runs amok. That’s what happened in the ’40s, when thousands of Japanese-Americans were herded into prison camps in the name of protecting the country against saboteurs. It happened in the ’50s when thousands more were blacklisted and had their careers ruined as the result of anti-communist witch hunts; in the ’60s, when protestors were harassed, investigated and jailed for opposing the Vietnam War. It’s happened as recently as the ’90s, when properties were seized and innocent lives ruined in the name of the war on drugs.

So it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict what’s going to happen now: Ordinary citizens will soon be swept up in the net intended for “suspected terrorists.” And the most disturbing thing about all of this is that it’s totally unnecessary. The government has yet to demonstrate that any of the steps it’s undertaken to revoke constitutional protections would have made one iota of difference on September 11. On the contrary, as the successful prosecutions of numerous terrorists in recent years have shown, America’s legal system is fully capable of investigating and prosecuting terror without suspending the Constitution.

Let’s not wait for more horror stories. Let’s tell our federal representatives that we won’t stand for this radical redefinition of our legal rights and this suspension of American justice. Let’s remind them of that oath to protect and defend the Constitution before it’s too late.