Making a Better World
by Wayne Grytting
For those who wondered how to help their country after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, there were these helpful words from military consultant Loren B. Thompson. As he told the readers of The Wall Street Journal, the "Most valuable tool of domestic counterterrorism is a mistrustful citizenry." We need, he said, to encourage "skepticism about strangers." The prayers of citizens like Thompson were put into law with the passage of the USA Patriot Act, which freed the government to use its stockpiles of surveillance equipment without being stuck with any time-consuming paperwork.
Knee-jerk civil libertarians failed to appreciate some of the accomplishments of the Patriot Act. The ACLU estimated it violated not just one but six amendments in the Bill of Rights (the first, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth and thirteenth), setting a modern day record (how it missed the second, third, seventh and ninth is still being debated). Just as importantly, the Act managed to "update" our concept of "domestic terrorism." Not content to limit terrorism to actions that threaten human life, the Act added the all-important category of actions that "appear to be intended ... to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion." In one fell swoop, the Act managed something no other piece of legislation has ever attempted: linking together Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, the Boston Tea Party, the civil rights movement, the suffragettes, the labor movement, the peace movement -- as the domestic terrorists they obviously were.
Having nothing better to do, I went to my dictionary and looked up the meaning of "intimidation." Here it is from Merriam-Webster: intimidation "implies inducing fear or a sense of inferiority into another." Very few comentators have appreciated our national interest in protecting government officials from a sense of inferiority. Nor have they noted that the Act's definition of terrorism is not limited to actions against our government, but towards "a government." Which introduces a ticklish problem for us as taxpayers. On this reading, we could be held responsible for our military's efforts to intimidate another government.
As for critics of the Patriotism Act, Attorney General John Ashcroft had this timely warning: "To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists." Criticism of the Bush administration, he added, just "gives ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends." A perfect circle, just like in the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, where questioning the right to torture was sure evidence of one's bewitchment or heresy. It leaves us with only one possible course of action: Let's pick a day and turn ourselves in as terrorists. Whether as satirists inducing inferiority or as taxpayers, we're all guilty. Let's save the government the expense.
I think Wayne goes a little over the top there in a couple places, but I think he also makes some very good -- and slightly disturbing -- points, such as that Thomas Jefferson and the civil rights movements would have been quashed under the Patriotism Act. I don't usually write about politics in my journal, but I admit this one I felt was worth sharing, just for the 'hmm' factor in how far-reaching that Act is.