On The Patriot Act: Same Old Story

by Tony Palmeri

[note: On May 8th, 2003 the UW Oshkosh Student Green Party sponsored a forum on the USA Patriot Act. Speakers included Andy Posselt of the Student Greens, Dr. Martin Gruberg of the UW Oshkosh Political Science Department, Director of the UW Oshkosh Polk Library Patrick Wilkinson, UW Oshkosh Sociology Professor Peter Remender, UW Oshkosh Media Studies Professor Andrew Schroeder, and me. Below is a revised and extended version of the remarks I delivered. -Tony Palmeri].

Opponents and supporters of the USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act justify their positions by calling the Act part of America's post 9/11 "new normal" environment. For opponents of the Act, the "new normal" produces conditions under which an oppressive regime of neo-conservatives could exploit 9/11 and put in place core elements of their police state utopia. For supporters of the Act, the "new normal" requires expanding the surveillance and investigatory police powers of the State in order to reduce the chances of a 9/11 repeat.

I believe the Patriot Act along with its still in discussion frightening twin Patriot II are not part of the "new normal" as much as they are the Same Old Story.

Let's tell the truth: the United States Constitution did not even apply to all American citizens in a real sense until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Black people, for example, were systematically prevented from enjoying constitutionally protected liberties due to the existence of 3/5 compromises, Jim Crow laws, and other state and federally sanctioned legalisms that make today's Patriot Act almost seem benign by comparison.

Same Old Story

In 1798, less than a decade after the passage of the First Amendment, Congress passed the "Alien and Sedition Acts" during the John Adams Administration to quell dissent linked to the French Revolution and Irish rebellions. The act clearly abridged the freedom of speech, something the First Amendment says that Congress may not do. Yet the Supreme Court found the Act constitutional on the grounds that freedom of speech in America, like British seditious libel, only meant that government cannot prevent an individual from speaking. Once he speaks, however, punishment might follow. To this very day the courts interpret the First Amendment as meaning "no prior restraint" of speech, an interpretation most Americans find to be shocking when they first hear it.

Same Old Story

President Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, rounding up newspaper editors and other dissenters against his war policy. The Great Emancipator ignored a Supreme Court opinion arguing that his actions were unconstitutional, saying that "the Constitution is not a suicide pact."

Woodrow Wilson
Eugene Debs Campaign Poster

President Woodrow Wilson, one of the earliest "New Democrats," throws out the first ball while Eugene Debs runs for President from a prison cell.

Same Old Story

In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would enter World War I and make the world safe for democracy. Many dissenters were prosecuted under the "Espionage" Act, legislation that identified "willful attempts" to "cause insubordination" in the military or "willfully obstruct" military recruiting efforts as subject to as much as twenty years in jail.

Probably the most famous dissenter to be tried, convicted, and sent to prison for violating the Espionage Act was the Socialist Eugene Debs. While housed in Atlanta's federal penitentiary in 1920, Debs received almost one million votes as the Socialist party candidate in the that year's presidential election. John Ashcroft didn't put him in the pokey.

Same Old Story

The anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War featured numerous government abuses of civil and human rights in America. These abuses are usually mislabeled "McCarthyism," making it sound as if the pathetic Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy was alone responsible for the abuses. The fact is that anti-Communist hysteria pervaded the entire federal government during the late 1940s and 1950s. The liberal Democrat Harry Truman in 1947 issue Executive Order 9835, which launched a program to locate "infiltration of disloyal persons" in the US government. Howard Zinn in his classic A People's History of the United States quotes Douglas Miller and Marion Nowack from their book The Fifties:

Though Truman would later complain of the "great wave of hysteria" sweeping the nation, his commitment to victory over communism, to completely safeguarding the United States from external and internal threats, was in large measure responsible for creating that very hysteria. Between the launching of his security program in March 1947 and December 1952, some 6.6 million persons were investigated. Not a single case of espionage was uncovered, though about 500 persons were dismissed in dubious cases of "questionable loyalty." All of this was conducted with secret evidence, secret and often paid informers, and and neither judge nor jury. Despite the failure to find subversion, the broad scope of the official Red hunt gave popular credence to the notion that that government was riddled with spies. A conservative and fearful reaction coursed the country. Americans became convinced of the need for absolute security and the preservation of the established order.

The hysteria contributed though the 1960s and 1970s, most notably through the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) stings which from 1956-1971 were designed to "neutralize" civil rights and other activists using means condemned strongly in the mid-1970s by a US Senate Committee chaired by Senator Frank Church. The Committee's final report said, "The American people need to be assured that never again will an agency of the government be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers threats to the established order. Only a combination of legislative prohibition and Departmental control can guarantee that COINTELPRO will not happen again."

Same Old Story

Please do not fall prey to the erroneous thinking that abuses of civil liberties are more likely to happen during Republican as opposed to Democratic administrations. We have already learned of Democrat Woodrow Wilson's and Democrat Harry Truman's failings in this area. But one of America's most widely respected civil libertarians, journalist and author Nat Hentoff, has suggested that the Democratic Clinton Administration was by far the worst for civil liberties that the nation has ever seen. The Clinton Justice Department's advocacy of roving wiretaps, reduced appeal privileges for death row inmates, enhanced restrictions on the rights of immigrants, and the Communication Decency Act (the reactionary Internet censorship legislation that even the right-leaning Supreme Court found unconstitutional) all add up to a disgraceful record on civil liberties that was every bit in keeping with what we are seeing now under Bush and Ashcroft.

I will acknowledge, and I suspect Hentoff agrees, that in the Patriot Act and the proposed Patriot II we are heading into territory that has the possibility to become worse than anything we have seen before. Section 501 of Patriot II strips citizenship from those whom the Justice Department has determined to have provided "material support" to an organization the Department defines as "terrorist." Section 201 explicitly allows for secret arrests along with allowing detainees to be held indefinitely without charges. Sections 301-306 would allow for the extraction of DNA samples from those identified as terrorists or merely "associated" with a terrorist organization. These are harsh police state tactics that thuggish bureaucrats like A. Mitchell Palmer (Woodrow Wilson's Attorney General) and J. Edgar Hoover would have salivated over.

"Upon these two basic certainties, first that the 'Reds' were criminal aliens and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime, it was decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws"

"The Case Against The Reds".

Nat Hentoff

From 1996: "No American president, however, has done so much damage to constitutional liberties as Bill Clinton -- often with the consent of Republicans in Congress. "

J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover

"Justice is incidental to law and order"

As terrible as these procedures may be, history gives us no reason to believe that the Democrats are any more likely to stop them than the Republicans. You know the Democrats will not stop these activities. Only one Democrat voted against Patriot I in the Senate and a small group of Democrats in the House. Why would we imagine that the Democrats are any more likely than the Republicans to defeat Patriot II?

Same Old Story

The good part of the same old story is that throughout our history it has been average, everyday people whose names we will never know that stepped in and said NO to government encroachment of liberties. It will not be the intellectuals, or the pundits, and certainly not the politicians who will protect our liberties. Only average people acting together in their communities can force the government to respect the rights of free people.

And that's why I want to end this talk with a note of thanks and encouragement for the Student Green Party members who organized this event tonight. If you are here and are a member of the Green Party, you are performing a very vital and important service for Oshkosh, for Wisconsin, and for the country as a whole. We desperately need political organizations willing to stand for grassroots democracy and common decency while the Republicans and Democrats wallow in corporate cash and chicanery. Please do not get discouraged by the propaganda and cynicism of those who try to deflate your passion for democracy and social justice with their tired and hopeless moralizing about "Nader only got 2% of the vote," "your meetings are not well attended," and all the other statements heard commonly from people who will speak endlessly about the need for real reforms in America but will not bring themselves to join or support organizations actually fighting for such reforms.

The UW Oshkosh Student Greens represent one such organization. Only the dedicated activism of people like yourselves can ensure that America does not continue to be mired in the stale plot of the same old story. I admire your courage and convictions.

Thank you.

Tony Palmeri welcomes your feedback

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