The British government is engaged in a discussion that the U.S. government has never engaged in: How far it is willing to curtail civil rights in the face of looming terrorist threats? Four years after the attacks of Sept. 11, such an open discussion has yet to occur in the United States.
In the aftermath of last summer’s suicide bomber attacks on London’s public transportation system, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party called for many sweeping changes.
Most controversial was a change that would have allowed the government to imprison individuals for up to 90 days without being charged with a crime. Such a detainment would also likely extort false confessions and undermine efforts to gather solid intelligence rather than help them.
While Blair is still adamant that such changes would be for the better, he has bowed to increasing political and public pressure and is no longer insisting on the extension.
The main reason this even occurred is that laws have to be publicly discussed in Britain. Each bill must be read three times in both houses of parliament, where it is open to debate. Once this hurdle is passed, a committee goes over every single line in the bill to ensure that it is not only succinct and definitive, but also understandable by the average citizen. Only then can a bill be written into law.
Let’s think back about four years. The attacks of Sept. 11 sent the United States reeling. In the first few days after the attack, the nation was in a state of shock and unsure how to respond. The Republican Party quickly introduced the PATRIOT Act, a bill that nobody in Congress truly understood at the time and most still don’t.
Congress overreacted and hurriedly approved what amounted to carte blanche for investigators without any substantial discussion or considering how oversight of such investigative powers was to occur.
The Act’s text, as far as actual meaning is concerned, is almost impenetrable. It consists mostly of references to statutes of other laws rather than clearly understandable text. To the average citizen, it is all but impossible to read and understand. (I tried four times on separate occasions and still have no clue what large sections of it mean.)
The Washington Post reported Sunday that FBI investigations of U.S. citizens have increased dramatically. “The FBI now issues more than 30,000 national security letters a year, according to government sources, a hundredfold increase over historic norms,” the paper wrote. The Post also pointed out that each of these “letters” could be used to investigate more than one individual, which makes it all but impossible to accurately say how many investigations are occurring.
Oversight is also lacking, as no judge or jury sees the paperwork until well after such an investigation concludes.
It is doubtful that most members of Congress would openly write a bill into law that allows invasions of their constituents’ privacy on such a massive scale. If the bill had been fairly discussed, most of its contents would never have passed.
In my column on Oct. 10 (“Torturing international relations”), I detailed how Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had added an amendment to a bill that would have defined the United States stance on torture. If the bill had become law, it would have been illegal for any U.S. citizen to actively participate, condone or even simply tolerate torture. Vice President Dick Cheney has since called for the CIA to be exempt from such rules, which would all but neuter the much-needed proposal.
The necessary votes were there, and Congress was set to pass the amendment about a week and a half ago. At the last minute, Cheney successfully had the vote rescheduled to avoid embarrassing the White House with yet another political defeat. McCain isn’t backing down, though, and has announced he will tack similar amendments to any bill that scheduled for discussion to force a debate on the subject.
Such a discussion – much like the one that was avoided when the PATRIOT Act was hurried through – will be uncomfortable or even damaging to some. (In Britain, Blair’s political might has been severely eroded since he was forced to back down from his demands.)
Yet it is important that such uncomfortable issues are openly discussed. Britain, looking back at a long history of dealing with terrorism, already learned this lesson. On our shores, the lesson has yet to be learned. But if the United States intends to stand for freedom and liberty of the individual, the discussion and perpetuation of such ideals must not be avoided whenever they become inconvenient.
Sebastian Meyer is a senior majoring in political geography and a former Oracle opinion editor.