As part of a broad, week-long awareness program on civil rights in America, the University of Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union invited three scholars with different academic perspectives to discuss the USA Patriot Act for a crowd of interested students in Bodek Lounge on Oct. 27.
The faculty panel included renowned constitutional law expert Rogers Smith, professor and chair of the Political Science Department, Rahul Kumar, professor of philosophy, and Jeremy McInerney, professor of classical studies.
After a brief introduction, Smith jumped into the heart of the matter, first illuminating the audience on the history of the act, which is formally titled “The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act.” He then focused on one area of the act that he felt got too little discussion in the popular media: The complete reworking of the rules under which the U.S. government can use coercive force to extract information from criminals or suspected terrorists.
Smith outlined five separate arenas of governmental action. From the most constrained to the least, they are criminal justice on the local, state and federal level, immigration, international war, international law enforcement, and unlawful enemy combatants. He explained that until the recent enactment of the act, these arenas had been cordoned off from one another in terms of constitutional jurisdiction and information-sharing.
For Smith, this new free flow of information can serve as a double-edged sword, at once increasing national security but leaving Americans’ civil rights vulnerable to infringement. “With more information shared,” he admitted, “we could have possibly avoided the attacks of September 11.” But the system is now also too prone to abuse. As each agency shares a monumental amount of data, the slightest suspicion by one department could lead to monitoring and encroachment of personal liberty by a plethora of others.
Included in this fear is the notion that historically less restrained entities, like the Central Intelligience Agency, might be operating in unfamiliar waters using means not authorized by the Constitution.
Though no less passionate about the issue, Kumar and McInerney tried to add a little levity to the occassion, using jokes and anecdotal evidence rather than substantive critiques of the controversial act. Most of the quips, aimed at President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft, the primary drafter of the act, drew giggles from the audience.
Kumar, who originally hailed from Canada, explained that he now feels that the border guards have too much authority over people trying to cross into the United States. McInerney had similar concerns about accountability by a more empowered bureaucracy, relating a story from his days as a student when an academic advisor went on a silent strike, failing to process the visa extensions of many visiting students, himself included. Under the new laws, he pondered whether or not this would cause him, as a foreign national in the United States without a visa, to be a suspect of wrongdoing.
Originally published on November 13, 2003