Posted by: sternenfeeinflorida | 28 August 2009

An essay about civil rights and terrorism

I just finished my English Composition class and I promised a few of my Twitter friends that I would publish the essay I have been working on for the entire length of the class if the grade was to my satisfaction. Well, it was, so here’s the essay. I hope you enjoy reading it & please feel free to leave your comments (as always).


The United States has traditionally been a country in which civil liberties and the right to privacy have been held in high regard. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, this seems to have changed, at least for the administration and the legislature in power at that time. Soon after the attacks, the USA PATRIOT Act was passed with an overwhelming majority; Congress imposed significant interference into the lives of the people, not only the ones living in the United States. All this was done without regard for the protection of civil liberties and the potential for abuse of the provisions set forth in the Act. As a result, the USA PATRIOT Act has been abused and although the recent change of presidents suggests a change, it remains to be seen if the USA PATRIOT Act will truly be modified and the civil liberties restored.

Civil Rights and Terrorism

When on a sunny day in September 2001 a plane crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, it appeared to be a terrible accident, a tragedy. Then a second plane hit the other tower and a third plane hit the Pentagon. Suddenly the tragic accident turned into a much more shocking event – someone was attacking the United States. Instantly, perhaps to cope with grief, perhaps out of sheer defiance, Americans re-discovered their patriotism. The result was a new attitude – protesters silenced themselves out of fear of being declared “unpatriotic”; suddenly the focus shifted to new, greater levels of racial profiling, that now included Arab-Americans; censorship and surveillance that would have been thought utterly intolerable even a year earlier became the new norm (Warren, 2003, para. 3). The depletion of civil rights, especially privacy rights, had begun.

It took less than two months after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for Congress to significantly infringe upon constitutional rights, in particular civil rights. With an overwhelming majority and under the guise of protection, the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law. This Act not only modified which and how information could be collected, it also simplified the distribution of information among the different law enforcement agencies. At the same time, the laws controlling the investigation of criminal activity and those regulating the collection of intelligence were streamlined (Pike, 2004, p. 17). In an attempt to ease the ability to share information between agencies, provisions were set in the USA PATRIOT Act to remove some of the legal restrictions that prevented the CIA, the FBI and the Justice Department from sharing information that each had acquired through their national and international surveillance operations (Rosen, 2004, p.16). This was one of the most important changes affecting the lives of people living both in and outside of the United States, as it supplied the president and law enforcement officials with a vast increase in power (Warren, 2003, para. 4). Congress would have been well advised to examine the sensible and reasonable use of existing legislation. Instead, new laws were passed hastily without investigating if law enforcement and intelligence officials had been careless or incompetent with their investigations into activity that ultimately lead to the attacks (Lynch, 2005, p.204).

When the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law, it provoked a lot of insecurity and intimidation, especially among immigrants. Suddenly, all immigrants were now regarded as a threat to national security (Posner, 2005, p. 220) and a visa could be denied simply on the grounds of the applicant’s views or associations (Schmidt, 2009, para. 3). Additionally, with the USA PATRIOT Act in force, the Justice Department gave State and local law enforcement officials the power to enforce immigration laws, in which they had not been thoroughly trained, opening the door for increased potential of legal errors, random decisions, and contradictory interpretations of the law (Podesta, 2005, p. 210). To make matters worse, this expansion of power to local law enforcement officials greatly harmed the relationship between local police and immigrants, as local police were now perceived as immigration law enforcement officials. As a result, the immigrant community reported fewer crimes and suspicious activities for fear of prosecution for minor immigration law violations (Rosen, 2004, p.17). Suddenly, immigrants didn’t see themselves as part of the community anymore but as outsiders, unwanted and threatened.

Another way the USA PATRIOT Act infringed upon civil rights was the provisions concerning surveillance. The USA PATRIOT Act extended the power of law enforcement officials by providing new investigative techniques, including invasive surveillance techniques that were formerly used exclusively for foreign intelligence operations but whose use was extended to ordinary domestic criminal investigations (Podesta, 2005, p. 210). One of the justifications for this extension was that terrorists rarely have an obvious chain of command or reveal their true intentions until it is too late. However, the extensions of those new techniques lead to many prosecutions for low-level crimes that had no connection, direct or indirect, to terrorism (Rosen, 2004, p.17). For example, over 700 immigrants with a predominantly Arab/Muslim background were arrested in the days following September 11, 2001, and most of them were charged on grounds of minor immigration violations; however, none were convicted of a terror-related crime. To make matters worse , correctional officers verbally and physically abused some of the detainees and denied access to an attorney or family members to some for weeks (Podesta, 2005, p. 210). This expansion opened the door to observe and investigate anyone, whether their activity\ies were related to terrorism, or not.

Finally, the probably most blatant infliction into privacy rights was the USA PATRIOT Act allowing assets of organizations to be frozen with the sole explanation that they were under investigation for possible ties to terrorist groups. No charges against an organization whose assets were frozen had to be filed, no trial had to take place (Cole, 2009, pp. 7, 8).

At the same time the Administration remained adamant that the FBI needed to be able to secretly access Americans’ personal information without having to provide evidence of that person’s involvement in terrorist activity (Posner, 2005, p. 218). The FBI took advantage of the provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act by putting thousands of Americans under surveillance without proper authorization (Disarray, 2007, p. 5). Namely, the FBI sent out thousands of National Security Letters (NSL), demanding the recipient to release “any and all information the FBI requests from them” (Weigel, 2007, para. 10), without following proper NSL regulations and procedures. An audit by the Justice Department Inspector General established that these regulations were routinely ignored (K., 2007, p. 30). The FBI vastly overstepped its boundaries and abused its power by sending National Security Letters without exhausting alternative options first, and by sending them to Americans who were not part of any ongoing investigation. (Weigel, 2007, para. 12). After this provision of the USA PATRIOT Act, which allowed the FBI to send National Security Letters without a court order, was found to violate the First Amendment (K., 2007, p. 30), a law was passed that required the Inspector General’s oversight, as well as reports issued to Congress showing the extent to which the letters were used (Weigel, 2007, para. 12).

In the aftermath of September 11, reacting to an attack that caught them by surprise, Americans rushed to pass the USA Patriot Act to try to prevent future attacks. The results of such rushed action were provisions in the act that were subject to abuse and resulted in infringement of civil rights. The Act has been abused and there is currently a movement to modify it to re-establish protection for civil rights of Americans.


Cole, D. (2009, May 11). Bush’s Lingering Blacklist. Nation, 288(18), pp. 7-8. Retrieved August 1, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Disarray. (2007, March 23). Commonweal, p. 5. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from MasterFILE Premier database.

K., D. (2007, October). NSL Provision Ruled Unconstitutional. American Libraries, 38(9), p. 27. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

K., D. (2007, June). Former John Doe Warns of Patriot Act Abuse. American Libraries, 38(6), p. 30. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Lynch, T. (2005, September). Do Antiterrorism Laws Go Too Far in Restricting Individual Freedoms?; Pro. Congressional Digest, pp. 202-206. Retrieved August 2, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Podesta, J. (2005, September). Do Antiterrorism Laws Go Too Far in Restricting Individual Freedoms?; Pro. Congressional Digest, pp.208-214. Retrieved August 2, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Posner, M. (2005, September). Do Antiterrorism Laws Go Too Far in Restricting Individual Freedoms?; Pro. Congressional Digest, pp. 214-222. Retrieved August 2, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Pike, G. (2004, June). A SAFEr USA PATRIOT Act?. Information Today, 21(6), pp. 17-20. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition database.

Rosen, J. (2004, September 6). Prevent Defense. New Republic, 231(10), pp. 16-18. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from Academic Search Premier database.

Schmidt, P. (2009, March 27). Protecting Both Life and Liberty. Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(29), p. A4. Retrieved August 1, 2009, from MasterFILE Premier database.

Warren, Patricia Nell. “Anti-Terrorism Measures Threaten Civil Liberties.” Current Controversies: The Terrorist Attack on America. Ed. Mary E. Williams. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. Gale. Career Education Corp. 1 Aug. 2009

Weigel, D. (2007, June). Right All Along, Unfortunately. Reason, 39(2), pp. 12-13. Retrieved August 8, 2009, from MasterFILE Premier database.



  1. Wow you really pulled it together well! Good job!

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