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Liberty, or the USA Patriot Act?

Stephanie W. Wang

You may have heard of the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT Act) of 2001, but the Cambridge City Council passed a far more courageous resolution on June 17, reaffirming Cambridge as a “sanctuary city” that protects civil rights and liberties. While the former can only profess patriotism with the contrived acronym as a title, the latter upholds what defines the essence of America: the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The USA PATRIOT Act expands the government’s ability to conduct searches without warrants by allowing for delayed notification under broadly defined conditions. Just in case the 356 representatives and 98 senators who voted for the act have forgotten, the Fourth Amendment clearly states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ...”

The USA PATRIOT Act gives the Attorney General the power to hold a non-citizen in detention indefinitely if he has “reasonable grounds to believe that the alien” is engaged in any “activity that endangers the national security of the United States” without any criminal conviction. Here is a reminder for the drafters of this act and the 454 representatives in Congress “upholding the rights of their constituents” who must have forgotten. The Fifth Amendment states that no person should be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” the Sixth Amendment guarantees that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial,” and the Fourteenth Amendment reaffirms the right of people to due process of law. Since the, rulings by the Supreme Court have extended these rights unequivocally to non-citizens in America.

The USA PATRIOT Act gives an ambiguous definition to the crime of “domestic terrorism” that could be conveniently interpreted to encompass civil disobedience. Was Martin Luther King a “terrorist”? Only the defenders of an unjust status quo that is only favorable to them would find the movements for change terrifying. The Secretary of State is now empowered to designate groups as “terrorist groups” or engaged in “terrorist activities” with such vague parameters that groups from churches to political parties to non-governmental organizations could all be susceptible to such a designation. The act now gives the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies much greater access to information transmitted through various modes of communication, including the Internet, without the burden of probable cause. Such powers of surveillance certainly threaten our cherished First Amendment that grants the freedom of expression. Even more frightening is that these and many other powers granted to separate branches of our government without proper checks and balances just reek of potential abuse.

What is my greatest fear regarding the USA PATRIOT Act? It is the latest pretext for legalized persecution and oppression with complete disregard for the very freedoms that have built America into the unique nation it is today. I have often heard stories about people sent to jail without any cause just because another person, out of fear of persecution, identified them as a counterrevolutionary. I have heard of people committing suicide before they could be wrongly accused and exiled to faraway places. I have heard of children and adults harassed and abused not because of what they done, but because of their supposed background. However, I always tell myself that it was another time and another place; after all, what could be more different than the United States of America at the start of the 21st century and the People’s Republic of China during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s? I laughed at and dismissed the paranoia of my parents’ generation who lived through that time and reminded myself that I am lucky to have freedoms and choices.

Then I remember the internment camps during World War II. I learn about the communism witch hunts during the McCarthy era. I become aware of the racial profiling and hate crimes that have plagued and continue to plague America. I think of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed, off-duty security guard, shot by an undercover New York detective. He was the fourth unarmed African-American man shot by New York police in under a year. I remember Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death with a bat when two auto workers in Detroit angry at the Japanese auto industry’s success mistook him for a Japanese person. Neither perpetrator received any jail time and only had to pay a fine of a few thousand dollars for the hateful homicide. I wonder really how far we have really come from the days of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other xenophobic legislation more than a century ago. I begin to understand the paranoia and fear as I have come to understand what the USA PATRIOT Act really means.

The USA PATRIOT Act destroys the vision of America I had longed for: the land of immigrants that embraces rather than rejects, celebrates opinions rather than suppresses voices, gives everyone the chance to build a life with liberty rather than fear, and does not exclude anyone from truly being part of and contributing to this diverse community. I now fear an America of unsubstantiated finger-pointing, criminal acts driven by uninformed hate, and an unstoppable wave of scapegoating that history will condemn far too late. At least one story of an individual detained indefinitely based on a minor violation and unsubstantiated suspicion of “terrorist activities” has already emerged.

Cambridge has taken one step towards rejecting the violations of civil liberties in the USA PATRIOT Act, but will all of you take the next step to stand up for the basic rights promised in the Constitution? Is it un-American to condemn a person or a group to guilt until proven innocent while stripping away rights from people “just in case”?