In 2001, the tragedy of 9/11 took the lives of 2,977 Americans. 14 years later, surviving US citizens are still reconciling the consequences their citizen rights have faced from that day on.
The Patriot Act
In the aftermath of the calamity, president George W. Bush passed the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001,” widely known as the Patriot Act.
At the time, the act was met with mass public support bolstered by patriotism and a public that was coming to see terrorism as a serious and irreconcilable threat.
“After 9/11, 70% of the public said, ‘Forget the Constitution, give me security,’” said Amitai Etzioni, a professor at The George Washington University, in reference to the reelection of Bush.
Etzioni spoke in a November of 2014 debate with American Civil Liberties Union president Susan Herman. Both discussed how, in 2001, Americans chose security in the since ongoing trade-off between privacy and security.
However in the time since the Patriot Act, Americans believe so strongly in the idea of privacy over security. According to Pew Research Center, many Americans who thought it necessary to “sacrifice civil liberties to combat terrorism” in 2001 no longer felt that way in 2011.
Edward Snowden and the NSA
In 2013, whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s released to the public that the US government was collecting a great deal of domestic telecommunications information by way of companies like Verizon and Google.
Most notably, NSA’s surveillance included metadata, information about phone calls (excluding the actual audio exchange), such as phone numbers, call times, and call durations. The revelation led to national controversy regarding the allowances of Section 215 of Patriot Act, the section the government used to justify the collection.
Snowden’s disclosure sparked a fear of “Big Brother” among many Americans, thus pushing lawmakers to pursue legislative changes to the Patriot Act in order to shut down the NSA’s culling of private data, calling it a breach of our civil rights.
A report released by The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 indicated that no “major case developments” resulted from “records obtained in response to Section 215.”
However, until the USA Freedom Act passed on June 2nd of this year, the Patriot Act had essentially remained unchanged from its original form.
The USA Freedom Act
Pushing back on the government’s breach of citizens’ privacy became a bipartisan effort following Snowden’s leaks, with both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans who lean towards libertarianism backing the USA Freedom Act.
Senator Rand Paul most famously said, “I will force the expiration of the NSA illegal spy program.”
Even former Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, author of the Patriot Act, expressed that the government’s interpretation of the Patriot Act to justify the NSA’s telecommunications collection was unacceptable.
The USA Freedom Act passed only one day after three major tenets of the Patriot Act expired.
The act served to limit the NSA’s collection of telecommunications information. The less controversial tenets of the Patriot Act that dealt with “lone wolf” suspects, or suspected terrorists working independent of terror organizations and “roving wiretaps,” or surveillance that follows a suspect despite attempts to, for example, swap phones, were renewed.
The Lesser-known Equality Issue
Despite the focus on the NSA, the breaching of rights for many Americans has long been a problem. The Patriot Act resulted in rampant racial profiling and stereotyping of primarily practitioners of Islam, but also of Arabs and South Asians.
Though most supporters of the Patriot Act, including Etzioni, agree that only a small minority of Muslims justify violence by the Quran, Muslims are disproportionately targeted as national security threats by both law enforcement officials and the general public
The Sikh community has also struggled with being targeted as terrorists for a reason as insignificant as their turbans. People have been known to incorrectly associated turbans with Islam and thus with terrorism.
“Minorities pay the price,” said Herman, who has witnessed firsthand the disproportional targeting minorities who fit the stereotype of a terrorist.
The US Department of Justice acknowledges such discrimination and reported that of 54 federally charged hate crimes, 48 have been convicted.
Civil Rights Today
The passage of the USA Freedom Act has come to mean the passing of the struggle for civil rights between citizens and their government.
But 9/11 brought forth an era of blurred lines as to what is justified behavior in national security situations that are as dire as terrorism. There are many examples: Guantánamo Bay still engages in the kind of torture that Americans would abhor should it occur in the US, among citizens.
Also problematic is the seemingly logical idea of preventing terrorists before they strike, as this involves the government attempting to diagnose people as terrorists by looking at their personal information and telecommunications data.
In other cases, immigrants suspected of terrorism, usually targeted due to race or religion, are detained unreasonably—a “guilty until proven innocent” process.
Though such situations only impact a small number of people, they indicate where American citizen rights are weak—areas that should be of concern to the wider public. But public perception, according to the above Pew poll, continues to be that the government should “track terrorists—not me.”
Unfortunately, you must be tracked if the government is to decide whether or not you’re a terrorist.