Last week Congressman Don Young broke ranks with fellow Republicans by voting against extension of the Patriot Act. At a time when so many in our country are clamoring to fend off government control of our lives, it would seem Young and those of like mind would have prevailed. But a temporary extension was passed in both houses of Congress by wide margins. And missing from the shallows of their debate was a serious attempt to understand why America has been at war for nine years.
Since 2003, Young has expressed regrets for supporting the Patriot Act, which was enacted shortly after 9/11. One provision of the law that he’s staunchly opposed to is the power given to government agents to examine library and bookstore records.
Any American citizen may unknowingly be the subject of such a search where the government isn’t required to show probable cause that the investigation is in any way related to terrorism. The law doesn’t permit them “solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment”. But the absence of probable cause gives the federal government a wedge to uproot our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The American people have casually tolerated the government diluting these rights for nine years. It’s as if the country is still reeling from the psychological shock of 9/11. But the truth is, it’s been easier to accept there’s no rational answer to the question “why do they hate us” because so many of us never paid attention to our government’s foreign policies in the Middle East and Afghanistan. And after 9/11 too few sought to educate themselves about how people in those countries really view America.
For instance, Al Jazeera English isn’t a network that Americans insist their cable television providers carry. So people across the country missed the most in-depth reporting of the recent mass protests in Egypt. Yet, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich points out, the network’s coverage of the Middle East “could have been illuminating Arab life and politics for American audiences since 2006.” Along the way we might have learned why Muslims across the region are offended by America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and by our unwavering support for Israel.
Fox News prefers none of this is televised here. They believe sources critical of our country only serve to poison people’s opinions. It doesn’t matter to them that the freedom to develop dissenting viewpoints is part of our nation’s proud heritage.
Wikileaks is another rising and contentious source of news stories, many of which have embarrassed our government. Some politicians would like it to be classified as a terrorist organization. But the New York Times editorial board wrote that Wikileaks’ “documents are valuable because they illuminate American policy in a way that Americans and others deserve to see.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Wikileaks of theft during a recent speech she gave about Internet freedom. But she still acknowledged that our government needs to be transparent in order to govern with the informed consent of the people. And before she boasted about how America protects free speech “with the force of law”, she blasted governments that suppress public dissent by restricting internet freedoms.
But how tolerant of protest is our government when, for example, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern was forcefully removed from the hall as Clinton was speaking. His crime — he stood silently in the middle of the hall with his back turned toward Clinton and was blocking the view of some people in the audience.
Among McGovern’s grievances against our government are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve been waging them since 9/11, which itself gave life to the mischievous energy that has bruised both our First and Fourth Amendment rights. James Madison, father of our Constitution, was right – “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
While I commend Young for his fight to amend the Patriot Act, I believe the debate needs to include a comprehensive discussion about these wars. And it must include listening to the concerns of the Muslim world. Otherwise, we’re conveniently ignoring the meaning of informed consent, and perhaps we don’t deserve the freedoms we cherish.
• Moniak is a Juneau resident.