One Law That Does So Much

President Obama signed the renewed USA Patriot Act into law with an autopen.  Scandalous.  It’s a law so valuable, so important to the functioning of America, that nothing can stand in the way of its perpetuation.  How dare the president risk sunset.

At the time it was enacted, few, maybe even no one, knew it’s value, no less its contents. Sure, it enables the government to do scary things, powerful things, to protect us from terrorists.  And criminals.  And people who just don’t agree with the government. And people who do things that a cop somewhere thinks they shouldn’t do.

A guy in Maryland, Christopher Fussell, found this out as he was videotaping.  He shot. The cop didn’t like it and told him to stop. He argued. The cop explained.

Officer: “Listen, listen to what I’m saying. The Patriot Act says that critical infrastructure, trains, train stations, all those things require certain oversight to take pictures, whether you say they are for personal use or whatever, that’s your story,” the officer said.

See?  It’s the Patriot Act.  Anytime a person inquires why he’s not allowed to do whatever the cop says he can’t do, the police officer can invoke the Patriot Act.  Reference to laws with which the public is unfamiliar has been a long-standing and effective tool in the hands of police.
Now, cops have always vaguely referred to bodies of law to justify telling people not to do things they have a protected right to do. But the PATRIOT ACT gives them undreamed-of street cred when they do so. See, (1) hardly anyone knows what is in it, (2) the media blindly pushes the narrative that the PATRIOT ACT actually does let cops do all sorts of stuff they’ve always done, and (3) the culture blindly pushes the narrative that we need to yield to authority whenever that authority can forge a connection, however tenuous, to OMG 9/11. Hence ignorance — both our own, and that of the people we look to for information — is one of the chains that binds us.

But there has been no tool, no law, more widely cited and less widely known than the USA Patriot Act.

Critics of the law argue that it’s a mere compilation of proposed and failed initiatives that had floated for years on the Department of Justice’s wishlist of powers it would like but no one, no legislator, would ever put into their hands.  Critics of the law argue that it was passed in a rushed heat of passion following the events of 9/11, when Americans were as malleable toward security as anyone could ever hope them to be.

Critics, however, didn’t appreciate at the time just how useful the law would be.  We focused on the language of the law, the powers put into the hands of law enforcement, the ability for abject abuse.  We did not concern ourselves with the law as a wordless penumbra of unadulterated power, where no one would bother citing chapter and verse, but merely mention the words “Patriot Act” and the word of a cop would itself humble the strongest man.

In the old days, laws prohibited particular acts, and people had at least a general idea of what conduct was unlawful and knew that they should behave within certain parameters.  Police officers were not generally of the view that whatever struck them, each of them individually, as a good idea for what people should not do, became law, enforceable by the might of their baton, taser, even gun if necessary, as soon as the word came out of their mouth.  That power didn’t really exist until the passage of the USA Patriot Act. 

Today, there is no longer a need for Congress to worry about the details of laws, to fret over which acts are lawful and which are not. It’s an irrelevancy.  The cop on the beat will decide for himself what’s wrong and not permitted, what requires a stern word and what justifies a damn good beating.  And when asked how he arrived at his assertion that his whimsical notion of law justified his seizing control over a citizen, he can proudly exclaim, The Patriot Act.

And President Obama almost screwed it all up by signing the extension by autopen.  What ever was he thinking, take such an untoward risk?

4 comments on “One Law That Does So Much

  1. Alex Bunin

    I think your post is in violation of the Patriot Act … or the Alien and Sedition Act, I forget which.

  2. SHG

    Nothing adds more to the conversation than a comment like this.  I hear the Patriot Act caused a run on tin foil and hat molds.

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