Ira Chernus  

PATRIOT Act Promotes Homeland INsecurity


Itís the Fourth of July, and Iím thinking about what it means to be a patriot.

Patriot: from Latin, pater (father).

The USA PATRIOT Act has been law for over a year now. It is the most radical threat to civil liberties in many decades. Why is there so little public opposition to it? Mainly because most Americans hardly know it is there. It has not made any noticeable difference in their daily lives. Thatís because they are U.S. citizens.

The folks whose civil liberties have been abridged or hemmed in since 9/11 have almost all been "aliens," to use the crude but legally precise term. Most of the affected "aliens" are from predominantly Muslim countries. Racial profiling may be disappearing from our highways. But it is alive and well in the Department of Homeland Security.

Are we more secure because we deprive aliens, especially Muslims, of rights that Americans cherish? Most of us do not think so, according to the opinion polls. We still feel vulnerable to terrorist attacks. So we do not gain security by having this PATRIOT Act.

And we lose plenty. When anyoneís rights are eroded, it threatens the rights of all of us. When any one group is singled out for special treatment, it creates lines of division within our society. That makes life more divisive and conflict-prone for all of us.

We also lose in another way. I know wonderful Muslim students who came to this country full of youthful idealism. They wanted to contribute their considerable talents and energies to improving life for all of us. They wanted to tear down the walls of misunderstanding and build bridges between the U.S. and their homelands. They still could do that.

But they are terribly disillusioned by being treated as second-class people, whose civil liberties might disappear at any moment. Indeed, they know that they might disappear at any moment, incarcerated without charge, without a lawyer, without rights, and without anyone being able to find out where they are or what is happening to them. Can this really be America, they askówith good reason.

By any rational calculus, the PATRIOT Act does more harm than good. Is this a way to greater security? It all depends on what you mean by security. The same people who tell the pollsters they expect more attacks may indeed feel more secure. It has little to do with preventing terrorism. It has everything to do with creating boundaries between "us" and the "aliens."

When the first Europeans landed in North America, they came with a very clear idea of the difference between "us" (white, Christian, civilized, familiar) and "them" (non-white, heathen, savage, alien). Ever since, white American society has found a perverse but very real feeling of security in that dichotomy. As long as there is some clearly-defined "them" to fill the bill, it hardly matters exactly who "they" are. Indians, blacks, Mexicans, anarchists, communists, "terrorists"óall have played the role of the strange alien in our midst.

As long as "they" are seen as aliensóstrangers, alienated, cut off from the norms of civilized lifeó"we" can feel certain that there is indeed a line dividing the good guys from the bad. As long as "we" feel confident that the line exists, "we" feel sure that we are on the right side: the good guys, the agents of civilization and civilizationís God. We feel secure that there is an unshakeable social order, a dependable structure governing our daily life.

But most people get that security only when they feel certain they are totally separate from those on the other side of the line. Thatís why those others must be labeled "aliens." They must be depicted as utterly foreign, totally different from us. There must be no possibility that the line of absolute demarcation between "us" and "them" could be bridged or blurred in any way.

If the difference were at all uncertain, how could we know for sure who are the good guys and who the bad? Then, how could we know for sure that we are the good? How could we even know for sure who we are, if there were no unbridgeable chasm between us and the strangers? Ultimately, we know that we are "we" only because we know that we are not "them." So much of our national identity depends on believing in a secure structure, built within absolute, unalterable boundary lines.

That is the kind of security most people are looking for. Itís the kind of security we once got, as children, from the boundaries and rules that the our parents laid down, and the certainty with which they laid them down. That is why so many adults look to the nation to be their parent, their big daddy, their pater. That is why they call themselves "patriots."

Ever since the Alien Act of 1798, Americans have used the federal governmentís lawmaking power to single out aliens as a danger, to draw the line between "us" and "them" ever more firmly. None of those laws made Americans more secure. But that was never their real intention. The real goal was to make Americans feel more secure by reinforcing the old comforting dichotomy of "us" versus "them."

The irony is, of course, that it never works. Creating a class of "dangerous aliens" does create an illusion of clear-cut boundary lines that could give a secure structure to our society. But it is an illusion. In fact, we must live together with those "aliens." They are not alienated from the rest of us. We constantly interact with them. They are an integral part of our society. Most of them want to help us build a better society. And most of the threats we face come not from the aliens, but from within "us" ourselves.

From the Alien Act of 1798 to the PATRIOT Act of 2001, we have simply confused ourselves by pretending we could cut ourselves off from the aliens and thus make ourselves safe. In so many ways, these anti-alien laws make us less secure. They make us feel less secure, too. They simply reinforce our belief that there is indeed an enemy dwelling among us, that we have good reason to feel frightened every day. They pursue homeland security in a way that only fosters homeland insecurity. That insecurity grows far more from our illusions, and our pursuit of illusory security, than from any reality. The tragedy is that so many Americans keep choosing the illusion over the reality.