As waves of revelations from Edward J. Snowden continue to crash on these shores, revealing the extent of NSA spying on the American people and our allies, including that flame-throwing jihadist Angela Merkel, my mind drifts almost involuntarily back to one of this nation’s darkest hours. I refer to the Alien and Sedition Acts, signed into law by President John Adams in 1798.
This nasty little piece of legislation was a series of four bills that infringed on fundamental freedoms imagined by our Founding Fathers in the Bill of Rights, ratified by Congress in 1791, only seven years earlier.
The background for the Alien and Sedition Acts was the low-level, undeclared war between the U.S. and France known as the Quasi-War, mostly a disturbance at sea in response to the French Revolution (we sided with Britain). The alien part of the Acts allowed the government to seize and deport resident “aliens” considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” The sedition part declared that any U.S. citizen committed a crime simply for “printing, writing, or speaking in a scandalous or malicious way against the government of the United States, either House in Congress, or the President, with the purpose of bringing them into contempt, stirring up sedition, or aiding and abetting a foreign nation in hostile designs against the United States.” With a fine (if unnoticed) stroke of irony, the bill was signed into law on Bastille Day, July 4.
With the election of Thomas Jefferson two years later, this law was allowed to die the death it so richly deserved. It had been used willfully to limit freedom of speech across the country, as when Vermont Congressman Matthew Lyon was sent to jail for writing in the Vermont Journal that he saw “ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” in the Adams administration. This is only one of many instances when the broad federal powers obtained in these acts were used to suppress speech and send political enemies to jail.
These terrifying powers granted to the president and federal authorities at the end of the 18th century foreshadowed in eerie ways the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which—among other dreadful things—set in motion broad surveillance procedures (in Title II), allowing the government to bypass sensible wiretapping laws that had been in place for many years. With the Patriot Bill in place, the NSA no longer needed to get a warrant from a judge to tap into anybody’s electronic information. A Surveillance State that would have boggled the mind of Orwell was born.
As we’ve learned from Snowden, a true American patriot, these powers have been sorely abused by Bush and Obama, as they were by Adams. Indeed, they should never have been granted. It was partly the wish for a right to privacy from unwarranted government intrusion that set in motion the American Revolution. And we are supposedly protected by our Bill of Rights from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and this includes going after “papers and effects” that belong to individuals. It was the British who threatened us then. Since Bush and Obama have taken the reins, it’s our own government that threatens our liberties, and these are serious threats—not just something that conspiracy nuts in the right-wing wilderness grumble about over campfires.
Do we really want the NSA or any government agency collecting our private emails or knowing what information we seek via Internet browsers? Can we trust that our cell phones aren’t tapped? Can it still be the case that Islamic terror threats are such that we are willing to accede to such a devastating loss of freedom? Why, indeed, did the U.S. Congress in the first place allow such an abomination as the Patriot Act—with its abridgments of the Bill of Rights—to pass into law, and why hasn’t it long ago been replaced by less egregious measures? These questions will have answers, but they can’t be happy ones.
It’s time for every genuine patriot to stand up to this obvious federal abuse of power, and to try to understand why and how we’ve let our fundamental rights be so terribly abused. Perhaps we might begin by giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Edward J. Snowden? It was, after all, meant for citizens who make “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States.” I can think of worse ways to begin to repair this damage.