Waiting for the Patriot Act to die

On Friday, Congress voted for a second five-week extension of the onerous Patriot Act, its proponents apparently lacking the required votes to cement it forever, as is, into our legal establishment. Hence, we have five weeks more for this complaint to mean something and for our apprehensions to be actionable.

How many times will I beat this dead horse? Until it comes back to life and dutifully trots away, never to be seen again. It may die, decompose and render whatever airborne diseases it will on someone else’s time, someone else’s property.

This is the thing about true evil: It has no scent, no flavor and no hue. Its most successful form throughout history has been complicity. Satan himself is not the one smelling of sulfur – he’s the one offering the eternal comfort of absolute safety, all bargained for needless freedoms.

Ah, safety. Isn’t this the primary belief underlying public support for the Patriot Act – that it will keep the American people “safe”?

Let me introduce an uncomfortable idea: There is no safety in this world. Not really. You can give up your every freedom, every right, every claim to autonomy – and still die this afternoon. It’s ultimately beyond control.

I will, however, concede that the Patriot Act might possibly keep the public “safer.” There is that. Maintain 100 percent surveillance on enough people, and you’ll eventually foil something, if only through serendipity. Even a stopped clock, after all, is correct twice a day. But for all we’re being asked to hand over, “safer” simply does not cut it.

The Patriot Act, then, offers us only a false choice between a “safe” world, which is utterly imaginary, or a “safer” world in which we trade personal sovereignty and a transparent government for their opposites: surrender of all expectation of personal privacy and a government that operates in inviolable secrecy, where every action is justified as being “in the interests of national security.”

The argument for the Patriot Act invariably goes back to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which some 3,000 people (agreeing on an exact number is apparently impossible) were murdered through coordinated al-Qaeda actions. Hence, the implicit concept in the reactionary legislation is to prevent any similar mass murder.

For supporters of the Act, this is a goal worthy of any infringement up to and including a total police state. Through either ignorance or intent, people making this argument never reference the Millennium Plot (Algerian terrorist Ahmed Ressam’s attempt to bomb LAX), nor the fact that under the Clinton administration, the FBI managed to foil it without threatening the entire country with eternal lockdown. But such is the nature of framing a debate.

To help put things in perspective, I’d like to frame the issue in another manner. Let’s suppose that the Patriot Act not only saves another 3,000 lives, but it saves that number every single year as well. That’s 30,000 lives a decade that would have otherwise ended at the hands of terrorists. OK. But why stop there? Due to the Bush Administration’s infamous secrecy, said to outshine even that of Nixon, for all we know, the “constant threat” of another impending terrorist attack is about 10 percent more reliable than just outright conjecture.

Meanwhile, peer-reviewed, levelheaded scientific organizations have provided the public with cold, hard, actionable facts that can save hundreds of thousands of lives – American lives (those are the best kind!) – right this minute.

What if I suggested that as soon as anyone exhibits symptoms of the common flu – not even the dastardly “bird flu”- the government ought to have the authority to snatch them out of their home and detain them indefinitely, in order to halt further transference? That, my friends, could save 36,000 lives a year in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Then there’s the swift, silent, chubby killer that is obesity, which claims an estimated 325,000 lives annually, according to a series of studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The government clearly knows what’s best, so let’s get it involved. On the treadmills! Now!

Finally, there are the smokers. Care to guess how many lives we could save if the U.S. government completely outlawed the use of tobacco? According to the American Cancer Society, at least 3,000 U.S. lung cancer deaths are attributable to secondhand smoke annually, and smoking-related deaths in the United States top 440,000 per year, the CDC reported. All right! Who’s ready to get really safe?

But of course, that’s just nuts. Nobody wants to give up his or her liberty for that kind of safety. And yet, while those are steps that would actually save lives, the Patriot Act, which gives the government all manner of unrestrained powers and can promise you no recompense, seems so alluring to so many. That’s the power of fear, I suppose.

What I’m suggesting here is a choice. A real choice, between that of surrendering to our anxieties and handing over 230 years of hard-won freedoms for the illusion of safety or accepting the idea that while there are reasonable ways of dealing with danger, none of them should require signing away a single degree of liberty.

Ryan McGeeney is a senior majoring in political science.