History and the Patriot Act

by Beacon Staff • November 2, 2005

The bitter partisan divide that dominates political discourse in America today has a tendency to oversimplify complicated issues. When things go wrong, a pattern emerges. The right blames the left; the left blames Bush. And the cycle continues like a game of ping-pong-back and forth, back and forth.

The seemingly endless scenario of finger-pointing often clouds appropriate historical context. One example of this is the USA Patriot Act. The law-widely perceived as a gross violation of our civil liberties-is not very popular these days.

Only 49 percent of Americans consider the act to be a necessary tool to defeat terrorism, according to an April opinion poll done by CBS News. Moreover, just 29 percent said they thought the government should be allowed to monitor ordinary Americans, according to the poll.

In June, 38 Republicans joined with 199 Democrats in the House to defeat the "library provision" of the Patriot Act, which would have allowed federal agents to examine people's book-reading habits at public libraries and bookstores as part of terrorism investigations. (I hope none of you checked out Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto from a public library in the past few years.) Furthermore, since the act was passed in 2001, seven states-a healthy mix of blue and red-have passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act for attacking civil liberties, and so have more than 400 cities and counties, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Outrage over the bill has been widespread. Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) said on his Web site that the "law poses an unprecedented threat to Americans' individual freedoms and is a violation of our civil liberties." While the inclination to blame President Bush and former Attorney General John Ashcroft (who is widely considered the architect of the bill) is certainly just, it is important to note that this type of intrusive legislation is not unique to the Bush administration or the Republican Party, and is anything but "unprecedented."

The Patriot Act is not simply the case of a Republican president gone mad. Unfortunately, it is a deeply rooted element of our nation's history, which has seen both Democratic and Republican leaders stomp over freedom in the name of security.

In fact, American involvement in a war has almost always led to attacks on our civil liberties.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is the right for a detainee/prisoner to challenge his detention. Sound familiar? Likewise, protesters of WWI were often convicted under the Espionage Act. In 1918, Socialist union leader Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to 10 years in jail for giving an anti-war speech and lost his citizenship for life. (For the record, his citizenship was given back to him, posthumously, in 1976.)

The list goes on: the arrest of thousands of protesters and draft-dodgers during the Vietnam Conflict, the detention and deportation of foreign-born citizens during the Cold War and the 1938 House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that called for the investigation of citizens suspected of unpatriotic behavior.

The infringement on liberty for the purposes of security is nothing new. This is not to say Bush and Ashcroft are not to blame for the dismantling of our liberties, because they certainly are responsible for the Patriot Act.

But, if we as a nation wish to gain a deep understanding of how our policies have come to exist, then we must take a close look at history as well as the present.

Michael Corcoran is a senior print journalism major and assistant opinion editor of The Beacon.

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