Hope Lives in Tonasket

By - Sep 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Richard Walters

In the wake of the Trade Center tragedy, the Bush administration pushed through Congress the so-called “PATRIOT Act” — probably the most mistakenly-titled piece of legislation in the history of the country. At the time, none dared oppose it — after all, it was called the PATRIOT Act, and to fail to vote for it would be, well, unpatriotic, not to mention disrespectful to all those heroic folks who died. As the fog has cleared, Americans from coast to coast have awakened to the horrifying consequences of exactly what has been done to them. The resulting pockets of backlash, although widespread, have not been widely publicized so far (what else can we now expect?). But they’ve cropped up in some surprising places.

At over fifty thousand words, the PATRIOT Act is a virtual novella of oppression. Within its pages, the Bill of Rights is shredded, and the blind lady Justice is summarily gang-raped. For those who haven’t read it (most of us), let’s think about the freedoms sacrificed in the name of national security.

The gang rape of blind Lady Justice.

Start with freedom of association. Your government is now empowered to investigate you because of the people with whom you converse, exchange letters, or have a cup of coffee. Then there’s freedom from unreasonable search and seizure — the government has the ability to enter your home without a warrant, and take a look around without telling anyone, the so-called “sneak and peek.” Freedom of information? The government can peruse your library records, video store check-out history, shopping patterns, credit card receipts, bank records, all without subpoena. And freedom of speech? Your librarian, banker, video clerk, can all be sent to prison if they tell anyone that an investigation is ongoing.

Your right to counsel? Forget it — the feds can eavesdrop on conversations between lawyer and client. If you are accused of a terror-related offense, they can deny you access to counsel, period. Speedy trial? You can now be held indefinitely without being charged. Public trial? Nope, in camera proceedings are now authorized. Even if you are charged, you can be denied the right to question witnesses against you if “national security interests” are cited, without any requirement on the part of the government to provide proof. As to freedom of information, the government has now closed once-public immigration hearings, secretly detained hundreds of people of “questionable” ethnic background, and encouraged government officials to resist public records requests.

Last but not least, God help you if you win the trifecta — questionable ethnicity, a connection (however tenuous) to designated terrorist organizations, and a suspicion of providing “material support” or “specific expertise” to those groups (such as treating a member of one if you’re a doctor, or representing one if you’re a lawyer). This makes you eligible for the bonus round —designation as a probable enemy agent or combatant, a secret trial without counsel before a military tribunal, with the possibility of a death sentence and summary execution without appeal. Oh, and lest we forget, your family might not be told, since they might have terrorist links, too.

PATRIOT Act II. Or, “Bill? What bill?”

Early this year, the Center for Public Integrity obtained and made public a draft version of The Domestic Security Enhancement Act, or PATRIOT II. Like most sequels, it’s even worse than the original. It would make permanent the provisions of the original act that would otherwise expire, and expand the government’s surveillance powers even further. Most importantly, it abandons the distinction between foreign and domestic terrorism, and broadly defines terrorism as any violation of state or Federal laws that endangers human life. Thus, theoretically, drunk driving becomes an act of terrorism, as would being involved in a bar fight. Having thus become a suspected terrorist, under PATRIOT II the offended could also be stripped of their citizenship and expatriated to another country. Perhaps more realistically, this could be done to you if you attend a lawful, peaceful demonstration, in which one of the hosting organizations (unbeknownst to you) is a designated “terrorist” group, since you would, by association, be riding on their life-threatening coattails.

When the draft was exposed, the Department of Justice was embarrassed because many of its own officials had not seen the document — it was too secret to be trusted to them. Fortunately for us all, the inherent extremism in it became the necessary galvanizer to provoke public outcry, and to focus attention on the abuses of the original act. Unlike the original act, PATRIOT II has run aground in the House of Representatives, where ongoing hearings are likely to prevent it from becoming law any time in the foreseeable future.

Use it or lose it. Or, Your final boarding call for freedom?

When it comes to matters of politics and government, we Americans are, by and large, a pathetically ill-informed, lazy assemblage. We chronically fail to vote, and almost pathologically select the absolute worst among us to manage our fates and our futures. We have become so jaded to corruption, influence-peddling, and good old-fashioned moral turpitude among our elected officials that it takes something really extreme to get most of us off the couch. It is particularly telling, therefore, that the insidiousness of the PATRIOT Act has galvanized such disparate, unlikely bedfellows as civil rights groups and farmers.

Now, finally, the public seems to have awakened, and the opposition to the Department of Justice and its abuses under the original act have begun to gather momentum. In early August, the ACLU filed a lawsuit seeking to dismiss key provisions of the act on constitutional grounds, with the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor as a lead plaintiff. It focuses on a specific section of the act, Section 215, which allows for unrestricted searches.

There are currently at least four different measures pending in the House and in the Senate that seek to curb the powers granted under the original act. In a surprising turn of events, the measures have originated with bipartisan support and sponsorship. The most comprehensive of the proposed bills is the one sponsored by Senators Lisa Murkowski, a Republican from Alaska, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. It would restrict a major portion of the surveillance activities to only gathering international information, ostensibly curbing domestic surveillance. It would also raise the standards for investigating an individual’s personal information (credit history, and so on) by requiring prior establishment of probable cause.

Inalienable: The right to read.

But the freedom that most caused our leaders to perk up when it was threatened was the freedom to read. Wisconsin’s own Senator Feingold has sponsored the Library and Personal Records Privacy Act, which would require the government to limit its searches of library and other personal records to those of “foreign agents,” and would require probable cause. A similar bill was introduced earlier this year by independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, requiring the government to obtain a search warrant, and it would exempt librarians and booksellers from the gag order provisions of the act.

A Republican Senator from Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter, was one of the few to vote against the original Act, and he has recently introduced a successful amendment to a spending authorization bill. Hitting the Department of Justice where it hurts, in the budget, he was able to attach a restriction to a spending bill that funds the activities of the departments of Commerce, Justice, and State for the coming fiscal year. His amendment specifically bars the use of federal funds for “sneak and peek” searches. This extends to salary dollars for federal employees, so no agent can be directed by a supervisor to engage in a search because his paycheck comes from federal funds.

Without exception, the legislative sponsors have attributed the genesis of their efforts to the growing grassroots discontent about the provisions of the act, and the intrusions on our freedoms. As of a recent count, three states and 141 counties and cities across the country have approved resolutions declaring their opposition and resistance to the PATRIOT Act. These entities represent a combined sixteen million voters. The resolutions have brought together an encouraging alliance of flaming liberals and hard-line conservatives, with long-time libertarians welcoming all comers to their point of view. While one might expect such actions in large, metropolitan communities with universities, the most encouraging sign is that it’s happening in the smallest towns in the country. One of the most articulate examples comes from the people of Tonasket, Washington.

The Tonasket Resolution.

Tonasket is a town of one thousand citizens in northern Washington, comprised largely of apple growers. Hardly a hotbed of sedition and revolution, the town became the source of a populist reaction that has spread to neighboring towns and cities, and is being considered by the officials of the county. A local man, Mark Alan, introduced a simple, two page resolution to the city council, condemning the PATRIOT Act after a run-in with federal agents over his unlicensed low-power radio station. The local police chief, Don Schneider, edited Alan’s broadside to make it reflective of the town’s support of the lawful, proper activities of the government, and it was passed unanimously by the town council.

In its five sections, the Tonasket Resolution articulates the beliefs of ordinary Americans with respect to the government’s overreaching.

The first section declares that the city supports all lawful and constitutional means of preventing and investigating terrorism. In Section Two, it declares the belief that the government already had all the tools it needed before the Act was passed. Section Three, the heart of the resolution, declares that any law or act that dilutes, weakens, or denies the Constitutionally-guaranteed rights of its citizens is void and unenforceable within its boundaries. Section Four encourages all citizens to study the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to be able to recognize and resist any effort to take away their rights. Finally, Section Five calls upon the good people of Tonasket to protect and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to demonstrate outspoken respect for those rights and for the sacrifices made to have and keep them.

The people of Tonasket have offered us all an example. Ordinary people, out of the mainstream of airport searches and metal detectors, they have made the simple, fundamental statement that our freedoms define the way we live and who we are. They will not cooperate in or support any effort to diminish those freedoms, and thus to diminish us. It is in places like Tonasket that the hope for our future resides.

End Note: Wisconsin takes action.

Highlighting the courage of the citizens of Tonasket is in no way meant to diminish the work of the citizens of Wisconsin. Many groups here, too, are hard at work in our efforts to curb the damning effects of the PATRIOT Act and its evil offspring, PATRIOT Act II. In February, the Wisconsin Library Association unanimously adopted the American Libraries Association resolution stating that it regards “sections of the PATRIOT Act (to be) present dangers to the constitutional rights and privacy rights of library users” and has forwarded the resolution to Congress. In August, they endorsed the Library, Bookseller, and Personal Records Privacy Act introduced by Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) on July 31. The city of Madison has passed an anti-PATRIOT Act resolution, as has the Douglas County Board and others. Milwaukee has yet to step forward.

Of special note is the fact that John Aschroft, on a stump tour to rekindle support for the Act, recently cancelled his scheduled Milwaukee appearance without explanation. It was his only planned stop in the state.

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