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logoA Historical Argument Against the Patriot Act

Greg Downing

Audience: I am targeting readers of The Nation, which is a liberal political magazine.  The readers of this magazine are generally Democrats or third party members who are well informed on current issues and well educated.  There is also a very high representation of upper class and there are usually economic articles.


Purpose:  I want to enforce the idea that the Patriot Act is detrimental to society by infringing on civil liberties by citing historical references.  I also want to broaden the ideas of the reader to include the importance of defense of the nation and American citizens.  I want to encourage the reader to get involved and join the ACLU to promote civil liberties.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

–George Santayana


            Remember back to the morning of September 10, 2001, remember back to the ignorant bliss of safety and remember the liberties that we all shared.  The next day everything changed, and we were all plunged into a world of fear.  The government responded quickly, and using intelligence from the CIA and FBI they acted by invading Afghanistan, which failed to produce Osama bin Laden, the person responsible for planning the attacks on September 11.  Continuing the self-proclaimed “War on Terrorism” the United States executed a swift and daring invasion of Iraq on the premise of possession of weapons of mass destruction which have yet to be found.  Additionally, only five weeks after the tragedy of September 11, Congress passed, nearly unanimously, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism or, more simply, the USA Patriot Act.  This act was intended to protect the citizens of the United States from another terrorist attack, but in doing so it has infringed too far on civil liberties. 

            The Patriot Act is not the first act of the United States government to infringe on civil liberties, in fact there is a very extensive history of legislation that has transgressed the Constitution and the rights given by it.  In 1798 there were the Alien and Sedition Acts, Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus in the midst of the Civil War, and in 1942 Franklin Roosevelt sent Japanese Americans to internment camps.  In all cases, history should have taught us that civil liberties are paramount, and that infringing on them is a detriment to society as a whole.  It is important for every American to stand up and let their voice be heard.  The most effective way to have your voice heard is by joining a group that has political recognition and views similar to your own. 

            First, in 1798, under John Adams’ administration, Congress passed a set of acts known as the Alien and Sedition Acts.  These acts came out of a time when the United States was on the verge of war with France.  They targeted aliens who had political ties with France because of a belief that there were French spies in the United States.  The acts gave the president the power to arrest and deport any alien who was considered dangerous.  In addition, the Sedition Act forbade publication of any materials that were against the government.  Founding fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were very vocal against the Sedition Act and went as far as writing laws in Kentucky and Virginia which declared that when the federal government oversteps the bounds of the Constitution, the legislation is null and void.  By speaking out against the Sedition Act, both founding fathers were nearly thrown in prison. 

            The Patriot Act has now taken several of the same steps that the Alien and Sedition Acts took to interfere with civil liberties.  Under the Patriot Act anyone suspected of terrorist affiliations can be arrested and detained without solid evidence to prove their affiliations.  Legal analyst, David Cole wrote in the October edition of The Nation, about the trial of two Palestinian-Americans in Los Angeles who were being deported for distributing pro-Palestinian pamphlets and being part of a group for a free Palestine (Cole par 1).  Also, in The Nation David Sarasohn wrote about modern day laws similar to those of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in Alaska, Vermont, and Hawaii which encourage citizens to not cooperate with the Patriot Act in situations when civil liberties are compromised (Sarasohn par 2)

            The far right has taken the tragedy of September 11 and used it to pass far right rhetoric that infringes on our civil liberties under the guise of national security.  Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood that even during a national crisis, like the threat of war, civil liberties should not be infringed upon.  They also recognized that civil liberties were not just given to the citizens of the United States, but also to aliens living in America 

            Continuing through history, during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln infringed on civil liberties and broke the Constitution by suspending habeas corpus.  The writ of habeas corpus forbids illegal imprisonment without significant evidence of wrongdoing.  Ari Kelman, professor of history at the University of Denver, notes in the Denver Post that Lincoln has been forgiven by history for temporarily suspending this right due to the extreme situation of a country divided in two (Kelman par 11).  The Patriot Act has taken habeas corpus away from over one hundred people sitting in Guantanimo Bay, Cuba.  Lincoln was faced with open war within the United States when he suspended habeas corpus.  The Patriot Act, on the other hand, is not necessary during a time of relative peace within our own borders.  In addition, Lincoln guaranteed the reestablishment of habeas corpus as soon as the war was over.  The Patriot Act makes no guarantee of a time limit for it suspension of rights.  Habeas corpus is a vital freedom that the Patriot Act is taking away.

            Perhaps the most blatant disregard to the Constitution of the United States, and the most heinous infringement on civil liberties occurred during World War II.  Soon after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt declared that over 100,000 Japanese Americans be moved into internment camps along the west coast of the United States.  The conditions of these camps were atrocious; little clean water, scarce food, and inadequate waste facilities were just some of the difficulties faced by Japanese Americans who were forced out of their homes simply because of their race. 

            Currently the Patriot Act is holding over one hundred people in a military prison in Guantanimo Bay.  Even though the people in this prison camp are not American citizens they still have rights that are being taken away.  In addition, the Patriot Act is extremely racist.  The Patriot Act indirectly targets Arab American citizens.  The intention of the internment of Japanese Americans was to eliminate any spies that Japan might have had in place.  It was believed that by placing the spies in internment camps, the risk of another surprise attack would be reduced.  Currently, the Patriot Act claims that the infringement of rights is for national security.  All reasonable United States citizens agree that the safety of the American people is paramount, but what is the cost of our current safety?  The Patriot Act attempts to protect American citizens, but in the process it has robbed us of our freedoms.  Civil liberties are too valuable to be tossed aside, even if there is fear of a surprise attack on Americans.

            In order to prevent infringements of civil liberties, anyone who believes in the rights given to everyone by the Constitution of the Unites States needs to speak out against the Patriot Act.  There are several ways to express your desire to keep your freedoms. First is by writing your congressional representative, next is by participating in or organizing a political rally, finally is by joining a group that has the same beliefs as you.  Representatives in Congress are representing your beliefs; write to them so that they know exactly what you stand for so they can support legislation correctly.  Participating in a peaceful political rally is one of the best ways to have an opinion heard in a large city.  By participating in a rally, you are showing your commitment to the preservation of civil liberties in your city.  In another article by David Cole, he writes about the increasing frequency of political rallies and their effectiveness for getting legislation across to Congress. One of the most prominent groups for the protection of civil liberties is the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU.  The ACLU has fought for civil liberties for more than 80 years (ACLU).  The political activism that the ACLU demonstrates is listened to by many people in Congress. 

            The Patriot Act has gone too far in the name of national security and infringes on our civil liberties.  It is important for legislation to be in place to protect the citizens of the United States, but the cost of national security should not be civil liberties for all people.  Historically, during times of crisis in America, one of the first things on the chopping block has consistently been civil liberties; whether it is the Alien and Sedition Acts, Habeas Corpus, or internment camps.  This however is not justification for the Patriot Act to take away our freedom.  We can learn from the mistakes of history and understand that civil liberties should not be taken away during times of crisis.  Pat Holt wrote it best in the Christian Science Monitor saying, “We must ensure that we do not lose our way of life in the process of defending it.” (Holt par 11)


Works Cited

Anonymous. American Civil Liberties Union: USA PATRIOT Act. American Civil Liberties Union. 2003. . <http://www.aclu.org/SafeandFree/SafeandFree.cfm?ID=12126&c=207>.

Cole, David. "9/11 and the LA 8." Nation 277.13 10-27-03 October (2003): 5-7. Abstract. Academic Search Premier,

Cole, David. "On The Road With Ashcroft." Nation 9-23-03 September 2003: 22.

Holt, Pat M.. "Driving Dangerously with the Patriot Act." Christian Science Monitor 10-2-03 October 2003: 9.

Kelman, Ari. "Patriot Acts, Then and Now Civil Liberties Vulnerable in Past." Denver Post 7-6-03 July 2003: E-1.

Santayana, George. Microsoft Bookshelf, Quotations: Microsoft Corporation, 1998.

Sarasohn, David. "Patriots vs. the Patriot Act." Nation 9-22-03 September 2003: 23.