May 21, 2018
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10 years later: time to retire the Patriot Act?


The approaching tenth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., will launch a host of recollections and reassessments. The violence exacted on unsuspecting Americans that day — actually, over the course of just a few hours — has led to profound changes in our country, changes which then evolved over the ensuing decade.

Join us here for The Maine Debate, 10 a.m.-noon Tuesday, to discuss those changes and specifically laws like the Patriot Act, which was approved in the weeks after the attacks.

The profound transformations that followed the events of 9/11 occurred in several realms. The way Americans saw their nation in the context of the world was radically altered.

Many Americans saw the U.S. as a benevolent giant which was unjustifiably disdained in parts of the world. The attacks persuaded many it was time to drop the benevolence in favor of a tougher defensive stance that reflected the harsh reality of a hostile world.

Others worked at understanding why relatively small religious groups without a national base like al-Qaeda saw the U.S. as enemy. They concluded that U.S. foreign policy often treated populations in parts of the world as collateral damage in the quest for U.S. economic and military hegemony.

It is reasonable to conclude that if the terrorist attacks hadn’t come, the U.S. would not have invaded Iraq. And, obviously, the invasion of Afghanistan was a direct result of the attacks. U.S. troops remain in both countries and the cumulative cost of both actions exceeds $1.2 trillion. That cost impacts the ongoing debate about federal government spending and borrowing.

The cost also was felt in hundreds of thousands of families. Some men and women never came back, some came back with life-altering injuries and most came back mentally different. The unemployment rate among veterans of those conflicts is yet another cost to the nation.

Since the attacks came through public transportation, a host of laws and policies were changed. An entire government bureaucracy was formed, the Transportation Security Administration, to safeguard air, train, subway, bus and ship travel as well as freight delivery through all those modes.

And to better coordinate the work of agencies whose missions relate to domestic safety, the Department of Homeland Security was formed. It now employs 230,000 people.

To narrow the debate, let’s consider one sweeping piece of legislation enacted in the highly charged weeks after the attacks: the Patriot Act. In those first months, to oppose such legislation was to commit political suicide. Yet many worried the quest to put the country’s security first was to sacrifice the very principles of personal liberty on which it was founded.

One Republican presidential candidate, Ron Paul, has called the Patriot Act “an attack on our liberties.” That’s not hyperbole. According to some critics, the law allows the government to, for example, seize all phone records of everyone who made a call to Saudi Arabia in a given month. Gone is the connection between evidence of a crime and government intervention into individual privacy.

So, using the Patriot Act as a jumping off point, let’s discuss our understanding of the need for security in a hostile world vs. shredding the constitution, narrow threats against the nation vs. responding with the full force of the U.S. military and hyper vigilance at a great fiscal cost vs. maintaining a reasonable level of protection.

Join us at The Maine Debate.

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