Today, patriotism often feels to some of us like an odd and uncomfortable thing to embrace. Actions that draw the outrage of the world are being draped in the American flag, while Congress passes legislation that grants the federal government more and more power, removing the checks and balances that the founders carefully designed.
This Fourth of July is a good time to remember that the original American patriots were, in fact, dissenters. They knew the dangers of a government that acts in secret. A growing number of Americans today know that danger, too, and they're fighting--in ways large and small--to preserve the rights that the revolutionaries put in place.
As the nation was gearing up for war with Iraq, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee held a standing-room-only town hall discussion in Chapel Hill this past March. A crowd
of more than 150 people gathered to learn about the war on terror's most lasting and far reaching consequences on homeland soil--the USA PATRIOT Act, a sweeping piece of legislation passed only six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, which gave unprecedented power to the federal government.
Among those who spoke was civil rights attorney Alan McSurely. He noted that most of what we think of as our civil liberties came directly out of the Civil Rights Movement, when demonstrators pushed the envelope and fought for their rights to free speech and fair justice. "These laws just sit there on the books. They only have meaning when people force these issues."
Since that event, Orange County has followed Carrboro's lead in passing a resolution against the Patriot Act. The measure, passed in May, urges local representatives to work to repeal the parts of the act that violate the state and federal constitution, and to oppose any more executive orders that do. It also encourages local law enforcement to preserve basic freedoms that the Patriot Act could violate. So far, 129 cities, towns and counties--and the states of Hawaii, Alaska and Vermont--have passed such resolutions. Efforts are under way to add Durham, Chatham and Wake Counties to that list.
What's the point of these local resolutions? How can they possibly make a difference against federal legislation?
One of the goals of the Patriot Act was to remove barriers between local and federal law enforcement--Attorney General John Ashcroft wants local cops and agencies to feed information to the feds. Without judicial oversight, local officials would have little recourse but to comply. The American Civil Liberties Union says the act violates not only the Bill of Rights, it also violates the constitution of North Carolina and local statutes. Local resolutions are designed to back up those local and state laws and encourage noncompliance with any federal actions that cross the line.
It's like a large-scale form of civil disobedience.
Raleigh resident Susann Wigger is part of this effort. She and her friend Linda Cowan are collecting signatures for a Raleigh resolution against the Patriot Act and starting a Wake County chapter of the BORDC.
"I'm a pretty big believer in personal responsibility and limited government," Wigger says, "and I hold true to the fact that we should be trying to limit individual freedom as little as possible." Unlike many legislators, she says, she read the Patriot Act. "I like to understand what laws are passed, what they mean and how they're being applied. I'm not a lawyer; it's just a hobby of mine," she says.
"When I saw things about the government being able to read your e-mail or tap your phone without even telling you for 90 days, and that these things are not even overseen by judges, all they have to do is put it under the blanket rubric of terrorism, I started to see patterns emerge of potential for abuses of power."
While Wigger actively opposed the war on Iraq, she says the Patriot Act has always been a much bigger concern for her. "I think that without respecting our heritage, the Bill of Rights and the freedoms we're granted, going to war is pointless."
There is evidence that many citizens feel as Wigger does. The ACLU in North Carolina estimates membership has risen 30 percent in the last two years, topping 5,000 members statewide.
The Orange County branch of the BORDC recently met with U.S. Rep. David Price. They hope this will be the first of several meetings with legislators. Price is already a sponsor of HR 1157, the Freedom to Read Protection Act, which would protect the records of libraries and bookstores. They also want him to co-sponsor HR 2429, the Surveillance Oversight and Disclosure Act, which would create congressional oversight on foreign intelligence surveillance warrants. They want Price to oppose the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, aka Patriot II, if it's introduced in the House, and work to overturn the unconstitutional aspects of the Patriot Act.
After planning their strategy at a meeting last month, the committee moved on to their next order of business, the Festival for the Eno over the Fourth of July weekend. Should they decorate their booth with red, white and blue?
Lucy Lewis speaks up. She doesn't feel comfortable with using the American flag on their banner. "I understand people who want to reclaim it," she says. "But I also think this whole idea of nationalism is being whipped up and is part of what's separating us from the rest of the world."
A few of the others nod. They soon reach a consensus: Red, white and blue will be mixed with other colors--the baby blue of the United Nations flag, rainbow colors from different nations, to demonstrate a more globally friendly patriotism. Yet there's something absurd about the fact that a group centered on defending the Bill of Rights isn't comfortable waving the flag on the Fourth of July.
Blurred lines between local and federal law enforcement are an intimidating prospect. But knowing your rights can protect you. As Indy readers know, 17-year-old Chapel Hill High School student Erin Carter was questioned by police about comments she made on her Web log that they thought had to do with a suspected hacking of the school's computer. The officers were wearing matching shirts with an FBI logo, and Detective John Moore handed her a business card stating that he was from the FBI's cyber crime task force. The stunned teen refused to answer some of the officers' questions and demanded to know if they had done a "sneak and peek" of her house and home computer.
She knew what the officers had done was somehow out of bounds. She was right--they weren't FBI agents, and they didn't work for the agency's cyber crime task force. When the story broke, the police department suspended the officers and launched an investigation, which found that Moore had misrepresented himself and violated the rules of the department. Moore immediately resigned.
Carter is now in Nicaragua with the group Witness For Peace. In a recent e-mail she reflected on her experience. "I am extremely proud of the Chapel Hill Police Department for their excellent, fair and publicly open handling of this case," she said. "If every government agency operated like the CHPD, I'd be a whole lot prouder to be an American."
Carter is in Nicaragua to observe labor conditions in American textile factories there. "To be an American," she writes, "you have to keep an eye on your government at all times, and if you see it doing something wrong, you must work to change that destructive action. No matter what the scale, whether it is a couple of misguided cops or an entire economic system, a real American will try his or her damnedest to root out corruption."
Her experience gave the Chapel Hill Police a chance to let the public know where it stands. Chapel Hill Police Chief Gregg Jarvies says, "We are not an arm of the federal government." Years ago, when police departments were being asked to enforce immigration laws, he said the stance was the same.
As for local resolutions, Jarvies says they don't affect his department. "Our protocols are pretty clear, and we would not need that type of support to say no. We have an excellent working relationship with federal and state agencies within North Carolina, but we also have a very clear role within those relationships. It's very clear what we will and will not do," he said. "Any investigations pursuant to the Patriot Act would have to be undertaken by the federal agencies, not by the Chapel Hill Police Department."
The call to do so didn't come from the public. "Our patrons have not been terribly vocal," she says. "Perhaps they're assuming that the FBI would have to go through multiple hoops to obtain this information, but the truth is, it's not difficult at all."
North Carolina is one of 48 states that protect the confidentiality of any records of the books people check out, what questions they ask, or what research they do at the library. Furthermore, libraries have developed software to deliberately wipe clean any record of who was using it of what they were looking for. "We try not to maintain records of what people are reading any longer than we have to."
But what records do exist can be taken by federal investigators under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which says that libraries, bookstores, health care facilities and other businesses have to turn over those records. And thanks to a non-disclosure clause, the librarian isn't allowed to tell the patron that they're being investigated. They can't even tell their colleagues that an investigator contacted them.
On the bright side, an FBI agent can't just walk up to the circulation desk and demand the records--if they try that, the secrecy clause is blown. "In North Carolina, we have to have some official document that compels us to turn over that information. We can't do it voluntarily."
Klinefelter doesn't know of any investigations that have happened at a UNC library--but then again, if the paperwork was done correctly, she wouldn't know.
In response to this state of affairs, many libraries and bookstores have put up signs to warn their patrons that records are no longer confidential. Some of the signs are funny. "The FBI has not been here," reads one, with small type at the bottom that says, "Watch very closely for the removal of this sign."
It could be that someone needs to find out about a disease, or a battered spouse could be seeking out shelter and divorce options. She calls this a "chilling effect" that is undermining the library's very function. "Our role is actually similar to that of journalists. We're there to help the country to have an informed electorate." No one knows which traces of information could trigger an investigator's suspicion. What if you were looking up political history? Or information on terrorism? You might think you have nothing to hide, she says, but that doesn't mean the FBI will think so.
If passed, the Freedom to Read Protection Act would change this aspect of the Patriot Act. But there is a larger issue of privacy that bill won't solve. "I think we have a culture that rather expects their privacy to be violated," says Klinefelter, "and that's very dangerous. It's a cultural norm that might shift the legal definition of what is a 'reasonable' invasion of privacy."
Whether or not you feel especially patriotic, being an American feels like an inalienable thing. Immigrants and foreign nationals are clearly more at risk for secret arrests, detention without trials and deportation.
But Patriot II contains a provision that would allow the federal government to strip those found guilty of terrorism of their American citizenship. People who were born and raised here could be stripped of their rights and detained indefinitely.
Omar Askar, a 21-year-old political science major at North Carolina State University, has a lot of friends who've had to go to Charlotte to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "They said it's just a waste of time, basically. If somebody wanted to harm the United States they wouldn't come and register anyway."
Askar was born and raised in North Carolina. His parents are naturalized U.S. citizens, originally from Egypt, who have lived here for nearly 20 years. He's president of the Muslim Student Association, which offers activities for anyone curious about the religion.
"The real concern here is not Muslims in America, it's really the freedom of every person here in America," he says. "It's not just Muslims that are being targeted."
Askar says the sudden emergence of flags after Sept. 11 didn't bother him. "It's no problem to show the American flag and show that you're patriotic. It's just how you carry out your patriotism." After Sept. 11, Askar says his mosque received dozens of bomb threats and had to hire security guards. "But on the bright side, we received dozens of letters of support and flowers from various churches and organizations. When people get emotional and don't really think about what they're doing, that's the wrong kind of patriotism."
Askar says his feelings about being an American haven't changed in light of the war with Iraq or Ashcroft's homeland security crusade. "That doesn't change anything. I'm still who I am. You can't deny where I was born and where I was raised. Being an American is having your own thoughts and ideas and your freedom of voicing your opinions."
At heart, patriotism is an ideal of something greater than ourselves, a reminder to ask what we can do for our country. After Sept. 11, flying the flag became a way for the nation to handle its collective grief. The emotional turn that followed--the hunger for retribution and the drive toward war--drained the comfort many were able to feel at the sight of the stars and stripes. But a crisis is an opportunity, and the crisis of civil liberties is an opportunity to take back the flag and all it stands for.
"'Tis surprising to see how rapidly a panic will sometimes run through a country," wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. "Yet panics, in some cases, have their uses; they produce as much good as hurt. Their duration is always short; the mind soon grows through them, and acquires a firmer habit than before. But their peculiar advantage is, that they are the touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy, and bring things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. In fact, they have the same effect on secret traitors, which an imaginary apparition would have upon a private murderer. They sift out the hidden thoughts of man, and hold them up in public to the world."
For more information about the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and its local chapters, see their web site,