On October 26, 2001, the USA Patriot Act was signed into law by then-President George W. Bush. In what was a knee-jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the bill was portrayed as a necessary step to take in order to prevent acts of terrorism on American soil in the future. Using the completely understandable fear and anger that was felt by U.S. citizens all across the country, our opportunistic politicians gave themselves broad and far-reaching powers that are still in effect today, despite the fact that those powers run afoul of the limits placed on our government by the U.S. Constitution. At the time the Patriot Act became law, I was just a few weeks away from turning six-years-old.
Americans around my age and younger have never really known a world without the Patriot Act’s influence.
For those of us who had already been born, we were still far too young to fully comprehend the ramifications of the bill, and the generations before us were too gripped with fear to think it all the way through. It was sold as a response to 9/11, but much of the legislation had been authored and introduced years before. Those former iterations didn’t have enough support to make it to the president’s desk, but after the nation witnessed one of the worst attacks on America since its inception there was finally enough momentum to pass the updated version of the bill.
The initial claim was that the sweeping powers the act granted to the government would be used to go after terrorists, but, as could be expected, they were almost immediately turned inward and used against U.S. citizens. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances that led to the bill’s passing, Muslim Americans felt the brunt of the impact, especially in the very beginning. However, it didn’t take long for the Patriot Act to become just another tool used by law enforcement in the War on Drugs. And thanks to the information revealed by Edward Snowden, the former U.S. intelligence contractor turned whistleblower, we know that the Patriot Act was also used to justify the National Security Agency’s (NSA) mass data collection of U.S. citizens.
More recently, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to the Biden administration asking them to investigate parents who were attending school board meetings and voicing their criticisms of the various school boards and their members. Had the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) decided to actually go after those parents, the justification used to do so would’ve stemmed from the Patriot Act.
The Patriot Act has also been used against Trump supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, showing how a law passed to go after foreign terrorists can easily be turned around and used on citizens here at home. Regardless of how one feels about the protesters who stormed the Capitol, (I for one think that day was an embarrassing moment in U.S. history and those who engaged in violence or property damage deserve to be held accountable, but the overall danger of what happened that day has been greatly exaggerated) the ramifications of the response to it—characterizing half the country as “domestic terrorists” and treating them as such—are very dangerous.
This is the unfortunate reality of the state of our country, and those in my age group seem to be desensitized to the severe impact on civil liberties the Patriot Act has had over the last 21 years since its signing. As a proponent of freedom and privacy, I hope to see the day when the Patriot Act, with all the broad powers that came with it, is repealed and finally viewed by all as the massive overreach that it is.
Unfortunately, however, that seems unlikely, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a new round of government overreach and set many more dangerous precedents. It seems we have failed to learn the lessons that we should’ve learned from the last 21 years.
I wasn’t even six years old when the Patriot Act became law, and now I’m just a few years away from turning 30 and the effects of that law still reverberate today. My daughter, who is just two months old, has been born into the latest generation that will live their entire lives under the broad powers our government gained due to the Patriot Act, unless we actively work to bring an end to it. The Patriot Act should have never been signed into law to begin with, but after 21 years and multiple generations, it’s far past time to repeal it.