The Patriot Act and the slippery slope

The Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of 9/11, is coming up for reauthorization.  Many of its provisions have been controversial, and not only among the President’s opponents.  Heather Mac Donald at the City Journal site makes a strong case for Section 213 of the Act, which allows for judge-approved delays of notice to suspects that their property has been searched.

The libertarian crusade against this commonsensical rule has been unrelenting. And the favorite conceit used against it is the slippery slope, the cornerstone of libertarian thought. “Give power to government, and it will be misused,” explained the American Conservative Union’s David Keene on NPR’s “On Point.” […]

The fact is, the government’s power to investigate terrorism has been the opposite of a slippery slope toward tyranny. Since the 1970s, libertarians of all political stripes had piled restriction after restriction on intelligence-gathering, even preventing two anti-terror FBI agents from collaborating on a case if one was an “intelligence” investigator and the other a “criminal” investigator. By the late 1990s, the bureau worried more about avoiding a pseudo-civil liberties scandal than about preventing a terror attack. No one demanding the ever-more Byzantine protections against hypothetical abuse asked whether they were exacting a cost in public safety. We know now that they were.

Mac Donald looks forward to a “full-throated” debate on reauthorization.  I suspect “bloody-minded” will be a better descriptor, but one can hope.  The passing of time since September 11 has stimulated nostalgia for the world of September 10.  I’d go back there myself, if my Way Back Machine could deliver me of the horror that was coming.  I’d love to worry about shark attacks, but only if the dream never ended, and the towers never came down.

I took my family to the Pentagon shortly after the attack.  As we gazed on the blackened wall, I felt an unnatural mix of sadness and anger.  This should never happen again.  We can’t go back to September 10.  That time is over, and the Patriot Act stands for a loss that many of us seem unwilling to accept.  The substance of the reauthorization debate is the essence of democracy:  how to balance the protection of American lives with the Bill of Rights.  We should all be paying attention.  Maybe if we do, Congress will rise to the occasion.

UPDATE:  Steve Chapman at Real Clear Politics writes an opinion piece that sounds much more optimistic than Mac Donald about the future of the Patriot Act.  Apparently, even the American Civil Liberties Union has accepted most of the provisions of the law and, despite the political hot air that surrounds and obscures the question, is supporting reauthorization.

For more than three years, critics have portrayed the Patriot Act as a ferocious assault on individual liberty and personal privacy. But with several provisions of the law set to expire at the end of 2005, it turns out that even the strongest critics don’t want to change all that much. Maybe now it will be possible for Americans to consider the actual law itself and not the grotesque caricature it has become.

Chapman thinks the law will pass with only minor adjustments.  Maybe so; but we should still pay close attention.



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