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Magazines > Information Today > September 2005
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Information Today

Vol. 22 No. 8 — September 2005

After the Sunset
by Dick Kaser

It did not begin with 9/11. It did not even begin with the jihad­ist terrorists. It can at least be traced back to the 1960s, when a hijacker would stand up during a flight and say, "Take this plane to Cuba." (And let's not forget the bomb that exploded after hours in the Capitol in 1983, not to mention the one that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.)

It's been 30 years now since anyone went to an airport and boarded a plane without walking through a metal detector. It's been 20 years now since an ordinary citizen climbed the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and walked straight into the Rotunda. It's been 10 years now since public traffic has passed in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

We have raised an entire generation that doesn't even know what it feels like to step out onto a tarmac and get on a plane without being subjected to random searches. An entire generation doesn't remember walking into a courthouse without passing through metal detectors.

Once little liberties are phased out, do they ever get reinstated?

It's been 4 years since, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the U.S., Congress enacted the controversial PATRIOT Act, which extended sweeping powers to officials conducting intelligence activities, with the caveat that the most unconventional aspects would sunset after 4 years. That puts them up for renewal at the end of this year.

All summer long, I received e-mails urging me to write my congressional representatives and senators. The ACLU wanted me to scream "privacy." The American Library Association wanted me to "protect the right to read."

But you know what? I really think this is about the Fourth Amendment. That's the one protecting your right to feel secure in your person, home, and things, and, if the police come knocking on your door or looking into your e-mail or getting hold of your library records, they'd better have a warrant based on evidence that was presented to a public judge.  

That's what our Constitution calls due process of law. And that's a fundamental precept of any free, democratic society. The PATRIOT Act overrides that.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. OK, but if we must forego (even briefly) something as fundamental for free societies as due process, then there ought to be some limitation and oversight. We want to make sure that the rights we have given up in this emergency don't subsequently get abused or, heaven forbid, eroded away entirely. The act needs checks and balances.

This summer, Congress debated extending and "improving" the PATRIOT Act. Prudently, both houses decided to continue sunset provisions. The House recommended a sunset in 10 years (i.e., 2015). The Senate said the act should be reviewed again in 2009, extending it by just another 4 years.

I have to side with the senators on this one.

In another 10 years, there will be an entire generation of agents who have never gone to real court with real evidence to get a real search warrant or wiretap request. Ten years is too long to let these unrestricted powers run without review.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. I worry more about human nature and the universal tendency toward inertia. And then there's my general observation that once little liberties go away, they don't tend to come back.

It's only prudent to be circumspect of changes that have the potential to inadvertently undermine our entire way of life—changes like the erosion of our right to due process.

So, thank you Congress for your oversight and foresight in recommending that the PATRIOT Act be continued with new sunsets and new oversight provisions.


Dick Kaser is Information Today, Inc.'s vice president of content. His e-mail address is Send your comments about this editorial to
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