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Let the sun set on the PATRIOT Act

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George W. Bush keeps touting American freedom, liberty, democracy, and patriotism. But, while all patriotic Americans are proud of the fundamental freedoms upon which this nation was founded, a true patriot must also take a look at how some methods employed in the Bush administration's "war on terror" actually threaten those freedoms.

One very troubling aspect of the "war on terror" is the USA PATRIOT Act, which has the potential to seriously erode our basic human rights and civil liberties.

The PATRIOT Act was born in the wake of the September 11 tragedy, and passed through Congress so quickly that most of our elected representatives did not have time to read its content before voting it into law with no discussion or debate. Under the circumstances, one can almost understand how our leaders back then succumbed to the panic and paranoia of the times and lost sight of the critical importance of protecting our freedoms.

Also, many of the more egregious provisions of the PATRIOT Act were set to expire, or "sunset", in December of 2005, unless Congress votes to reauthorize them. These provisions were presented not as permanent solutions to the terrorist threat but as temporary measures to be used until the terrorist threat could be analyzed and less extreme methods of dealing with it could be put into place.

Now, however, some members of Congress are advocating against these sunsets in favor of making those provisions a permanent part of U.S. law. If they succeed, they will be giving a green light to the government and law enforcement agencies to continue their extreme intrusions into our lives, and will leave us with little or no legal recourse against arbitrary infringements by the government on our civil rights.

Let's take a look at some of the problems with the PATRIOT Act:

It broadens the definition of "domestic terrorism" to include any "acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State" and that "appear to be intended ... to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." This broad definition could be used arbitrarily or routinely against activists exercising their rights to assemble and to dissent. It can lead to rampant abuse, as we saw with the arrests of numerous innocent bystanders swept up in police nets during both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 2004. Furthermore, it authorizes the FBI to monitor religious and political groups without any "probable cause".

It infringes on our right to privacy and removes many types of judicial review over intelligence activities. The government can search our homes and our computers when we're not at home, tap our phones, monitor our e-mail, and access our financial and educational records, all without notification. In addition, the government can force libraries and bookstores to hand over records of books a person has read, and the library or bookstore cannot reveal that this was done.
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It allows the government to detain citizens and non-citizens without charge and hold them indefinitely by labeling them as "enemy combatants". Because of this, numerous detainees have found themselves in a legal limbo, with no communication with their families or other outsiders, no legal representation, no judicial review, and no opportunity to prove their innocence - in other words, no due process.

Surely our founding fathers would not have approved of this kind of disregard for human rights and governmental checks and balances.

On a positive note, in June the House of Representatives voted 238 to 187 to deny funding for FBI demands under the PATRIOT Act for the library or book store records of innocent Americans without any reason to suspect them of wrongdoing. This is a good start, but it's not enough. The PATRIOT Act must be reformed, and the provisions set to expire this year must not be renewed or made permanent.

It is imperative that the United States stand solidly for the principles of unalienable, universal rights. Otherwise, those who wage "war on terror" will have simply won the battle against freedom.

I urge all of our elected representatives to stand up for liberty and let the sun set on the PATRIOT Act.
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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)

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