Following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States’ World Trade Center in New York City, New York, the American government enacted several laws to deter any future threat of terrorism. One of the more widely debated laws was named the USA Patriot Act, regularly called the Patriot Act. The legislation pursued several different outlets to increase national security and limit any possible threat of terrorism. Although the law appeared to be enacted from positive intentions, it certainly did not come without criticism. The law experienced a significant amount of backlash regarding the apparent expansion of powers of government. Many Americans viewed this law as a threat to their privacy and individual liberty. It raised many questions regarding the affect of a high-surveillance government on individual privacy and overall democracy. The USA Patriot Act became one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in modern US history. Although the effects of the law are widely debated and often accused of causing slight trends towards democratic erosion, hindsight proves that the Patriot Act did not lead to democratic backsliding within the United States.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the development of the Patriot Act is the history of its formulation. Although the law was enacted following deadly terrorist attacks that scarred Americans forever, it also came at a time following widespread globalization and technological development. Not only did the United States’ government contain a massive obligation to protect its citizens from the threat of terrorism, it also felt a requirement to address the potential for new forms of crimes to be introduced through globalization and the creation of the internet. Given the rapid changes throughout the culture, large numbers of leaders in both of the dominant parties of the U.S. government supported enacting the legislating. In October of 2001, the bill passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 357-66, and on the following day it passed in the Senate by a vote of 98-1. The USA Patriot Act became law and addressed new issues in a way that Americans had never seen before.
The USA Patriot Act affected the government’s surveillance in five specific ways. Three of these changes addressed the government’s relationship to private citizens and two of the changes addressed alterations within the government itself. It provided the federal government with the ability to review citizen’s records contained by private companies, allowed the government to tap domestic and international phone calls, allowed for detainment without trial, sped up communication between federal agencies, and expanded the criteria by which the government would determine what constitutes threats of terrorism. Of these five provisions created through the law, the first three receive the most criticism.
Many of the criticisms surrounding the Patriot Act revolve around the first three provisions that address the government’s relationship to its citizens. Although the purposes of the law appear to be completely justified, many Americans felt as if the law affected the democracy. This was arguably the first law in the country’s history that gave the government direct access to its citizen’s conversations, business transactions, and everyday dealings. On top of this, many critics also argued that allowing detainment without trial removed the citizen’s ability to defend oneself before punishment in the face of the government. On the surface, such a control-grab from a state appears to trend towards an authoritarian direction. It seemed to effectively grant the government access into the everyday lives of its citizens. However, did such a controversial act really lead to the beginning of a democratic erosion process in the United States?
There are many different trends to be analyzed that point to the erosion of a democracy. The control over media, criminalization of political opponents, and increased weaponized communication are all early indicators of democratic erosion. Another indicator of the deterioration of a democracy is the decreased privacy of individual citizens. When a government begins to infringe itself into the speech, decisions, and actions of citizens, their personal voice and opinions are denigrated by the overreach of the government. However, it is also important to evaluate the role of the government and the purpose behind its actions. Democratic erosion requires a government to step outside of its role in order to denigrate the voice of the people. Understanding the obligations of a government provide context for reviewing whether or not the state’s actions are leading to the backsliding of a democracy.
Although several provisions of the act contain similarities to other potentially harmful acts within deteriorating democracies, the role and purpose of a federal government cannot go overlooked. The United States Constitution clearly articulates that one of the primary roles of the federal government is to provide national security, national defense, and to protect the country against enemies. In an increasingly globalized society that is filled with technological advancement, providing national security looks different than in previous generations. Different generational norms require different and updated forms of governance. As is now evident, the policies enacted from the Patriot Act in no form affected the democracy of the country.
Although the USA Patriot Act proves that the line between national security and individual privacy is thin, understanding the intent of a government is valuable. Evaluating democratic erosion requires evaluating the purposes for particular policies and understanding the effects of a changing society. The USA Patriot Act did not lead to the erosion of American democracy, but it rather strengthened the security of the citizens from foreign threats as well as provided new ways of governance in globalized age.