The U.S. Patriot Act and The Erosion of Civil Liberties
The predictions of prophetic novels like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and A Brave New World are developing into a modern day reality. The Defense Advanced Research Project, for example, currently administers a program known as “Total Information Awareness” that aims to gather data from all available signal intelligence sources into one database, in the hopes of discovering patterns that will flag for possible deviant activity. This includes information about citizen’s financial and medical history, as well as personal communications and other transactions. Additionally, biometric technology is being developed for the identification and tracking of individuals by means of gait and face recognition. Video surveillance exists in an array of public places, spanning from schools, buildings, and stores, to boardwalks and outside shopping districts. Rarely, in contemporary society, are our actions easily concealed from the public sphere. The intrusion of government into the personal lives of its citizens appears intrinsically anti-American. These various monitoring advancements can function to make our society a safer place, but the costs to individual freedom may far outweigh the benefits.


Current terrorist events have illuminated the relative weakness of homeland protection and mocked American’s pre-September 11th illusions of security. In a fear-motivated response to the threat imposed by international terrorists living within our borders, congress has imposed a dangerous escalation of surveillance upon its citizenry. Through a variety of legislation, the frightening panopticon described by Michael Foucault is quickly being brought to life. Nowhere is this more evident, however, then with the passage of the U.S. Patriot Act.


The panopticon is the dream of fascists and power-hungry mongrels. Best conceptualized as a prison system, it is a social structure of massive governmentality that allows the possibility for the “jailer” to observe all of the “inmates” all of the time. As Foucault explains it, the prisoner “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject of communication.” This is caused by the continuous scrutiny of individual behavior, which becomes so inundated into the consciousness of the actors that it “assures the automatic functioning of power.” Conscious of their regular visibility, government control becomes the internalized means of self-regulating behaviors. The panopticon represents the ultimate imbalance of power between the State and the Citizen, as the citizen wields little to no power.


As an instrument of the panopticon, the U.S. Patriot Act allows for the increased surveillance of citizens on decreased evidentiary standards. It has given sweeping new powers to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to inquire into the books, letters, diaries, library records, medical and psychiatric records, financial information, religious membership, electronic communication, and genetic information of citizens. Additionally, it has eliminated the checks and balances that previously gave courts the authority to punish abuses of this power. Arguably, many of the changes to law produced in this act had little relationship to fighting terrorism. The power previously held by these agencies to conduct investigations was hardly insufficient, and the over-broad definition of domestic terrorism has allowed the application of this Act toward “run-of-the-mill” criminality as well.


The current administration has contended that these measures are necessary in order to combat terrorism. Yet, as the American Bar Association Task Force found, “the government has taken the position that with no meaningful judicial review, an American citizen alleged to be an enemy combatant could be detained indefinitely without charges or counsel on the government’s say-so.” At the same time, we are asked to accept the premise that the war on terrorism could last indefinitely. There will always be dissenters and those critical of U.S. foreign policy and American culture, as these are the qualities that the nation was founded upon. As the government expands the definition of “terror”, the possibility for an end to the war seems virtually unattainable. Even if American behavior were to match the rigid standards of an increasingly controlling government, it is far fetched to believe that this new vast apparatus of government power would be easily and willfully dismantled.


Individual privacy post-September 11th has decreased as the demand for government privacy has increased. We are all now familiar with the famous Intelligence document released earlier this year complete with twenty-nine blacked out pages. The government feels it is privileged to a