Timothy L. Waters: Be careful, Big Brother could be listening
A few weeks ago, the world was rocked by the horrendous murders of 128 people in Paris. I do not think anyone can fully wrap his mind around the concept of 128 individuals no longer existing. I surely cannot. Watching the live news coverage that night, I was shocked and saddened at what was being done in the City of Lights.
But amidst the jarring account, a troubling detail in our own country caught my attention. As the French were beginning the process of recovery, Congressman Peter King of New York was commenting on the situation, mentioning the possibility that a similar attack could be executed in the United States. This was far from surprising, what was bothersome was Mr. King's idea that advanced surveillance of the American people would fix the problem.
Now, the congressman's intentions are unimpeachable. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, he truly desires the best for his country, but by promoting surveillance right after such an attack, he is taking advantage of people's fears and ignoring the bigger picture. America can only be protected by defending the "unalienable rights" of man.
Just looking at the nature of the threat tells us that surveillance of Americans is counterproductive to the war being waged. The threat is, to use an unpopular phrase, radical Islam. This phrase is unpopular because of misplaced emphasis. The emphasis should be on radical, not Islam. That these terrorists profess Islam is secondary to the fact that they are madmen who shoot up concert halls and newspaper offices to force their ideology on the majority. Radical Muslims are a crazy minority like fascists to the political right and communists to the left, all three sharing the common goal of silencing Western freedom.
With this in mind, why would we do the work of our enemies by undermining our own freedoms and allowing government surveillance? This debate began after the attacks on 9/11, with scared people willing to see their liberties limited to increase their security, resulting in the Patriot Act. But do the people know what they gave up?
Americans forfeited the right to be free of arbitrary, unwarranted searches as secured by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The Patriot Act violates both clauses of the Fourth Amendment, allowing federal agents to conduct searches without immediately notifying the person whose privacy is violated, and giving agents full access to phone, computer, and banking records without a judge-approved warrant establishing probable cause that a crime has been committed.
All of this has been permitted in the name of national security, but an ACLU report shows that the Patriot Act has been grossly abused. Between 2003 and 2005, 143,074 demands to see records were made, resulting in only 53 cases being referred for prosecution, none of them being cases of terrorism. The government has made great use of its newfound power, but not for its intended purpose.
The cases brought for prosecution were for money laundering, illegal immigration, and fraud. All of these cases would have been thrown out by a judge before the Patriot Act because of the violation of the Fourth Amendment rights of the criminals, since the evidence was gathered without a warrant.
It may take more work, but as Orson Welles said in 1955, "it's the essence of our society that the policeman's job should be hard. He's there … to protect the free citizen, not to chase criminals, that's an incidental part of his job." It is time for the police to start focusing on the primary part, defending freedom, not undermining freedom for the incidental.