Monday, November 24, 2003

Freedom from all of this safety

Congress just approved a bill that enhances the Patriot Act by reducing oversight of the FBI and intelligence agencies.

Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can acquire bank records and Internet or phone logs simply by issuing itself a so-called national security letter saying the records are relevant to an investigation into terrorism. The FBI doesn't need to show probable cause or consult a judge. What's more, the target institution is issued a gag order and kept from revealing the subpoena's existence to anyone, including the subject of the investigation.

The new provision in the spending bill redefines the meaning of "financial institution" and "financial transaction." The wider definition explicitly includes insurance companies, real estate agents, the U.S. Postal Service, travel agencies, casinos, pawn shops, ISPs, car dealers and any other business whose "cash transactions have a high degree of usefulness in criminal, tax or regulatory matters."

I was in elementary school in the early 70s, and I remember that when they were indoctrinating us about how great our country was they used two approaches: first, they taught us about the enlightened vision of the founding fathers, and the way they created a Bill of Rights and a system of check and balances to prevent abuses of power. Then they would contrast this with the way 'the Russians' ran their country. I specifically recall that some of the reasons we were to believe that Russia was so bad included

  • the government was corrupt, giving positions of power and business contracts to friends
  • the government could arrest, imprison, and even execute someone without due process
  • to the extent that a government is secret, it cannot be democratic or its people free.
  • the people were afraid to speak their minds for fear of retribution
  • criticism of the government was strictly forbidden
  • the government was spying on its own people

There was more, but I'm sure you already get the point: this country has become a parody of itself, and now has more in common with our old enemies than with the ideals upon which it was founded. And it's not just paranoid liberals who think this: Ashcroft recently went on a speaking tour of the US in which he acknowledged that yes, our freedoms have been curtailed, but he felt that we should be glad to give up our freedoms if we want safety.

"Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear - kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervour with the cry of grave national emergency. Always, there has been some terrible evil at home, or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it."
- General Douglas MacArthur

What is the goal of terrorism? To strike terror into the hearts of their targets? Then theirs has been a tremendous success. We're so afraid we're falling over ourselves in our rush to surrender our freedoms. Much has been said of the people who lost their lives on 9/11, and much has been said of the people who continue to lose their lives in our military of Iraq. But what of the people who fought and died to create this country, to establish the liberties we are now so willing to throw away? There have been generations who were taught that our country's commitment to freedom and democracy made us great... and in the space of a few years we've seen democracy eroded and freedoms dwindle.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
- Benjamin Franklin

While the ongoing death of my idealism about this country pains me, the attitudes of the American populace - the willingness, even eagerness, to throw away their freedoms - pain me more. People think waving a flag and blindly supporting the government is patriotism. If so, then we approaching levels of patriotism not seen since WWII:

"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."
- Hermann Göring