There was a whiff of paranoia in the air July 17, when about 100 people gathered at the University of Pittsburgh's Lawrence Hall auditorium to plot an assault on the USA PATRIOT Act. "Just coming to join with this group of people can get you on any number of lists," said Barb Feige, director of the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Just by associating with the person sitting next to you, you can be labeled a domestic terrorist." Feige warned that the homes of the attendees could be crawling with federal agents as she spoke, and they'd never know, because G-men no longer have to inform people that their property has been searched.
As a video camera rolled, Jeanne Herrick-Stare, a senior analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, informed the audience that a portion of the hall would be a video-free zone for the camera shy. "There are some folks in the current climate who don't want to be videotaped at a civil-liberties-type event," she said, prompting a handful of people to move to the designated area.
Why all the scary talk? Because the federal government used Americans' anxieties in the wake of Sept. 11 to pass the USA PATRIOT Act and related legislation, giving itself wider powers to search homes, monitor e-mail, tap phones, obtain bank records, jail people without charge and deport immigrants. A draft of further legislation that leaked to the press would add more government powers, including the right to demand a DNA sample from anyone suspected of associating with terrorists, and to strip an American of citizenship if he or she is deemed to be connected to a "terrorist organization."
The gathering was organized by the ad hoc Pittsburgh Bill of Rights Defense Campaign, which includes the ACLU, Thomas Merton Center, NAACP, Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, the punk-rock group Anti-Flag and others. The campaign is pushing Pittsburgh City Council to pass a measure urging the repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act, and barring city police from participating in investigations involving the use of the act's powers.
So is the campaign just stoking peoples' fears of the government for its own political gain, just as the Bush administration plays on America's jitters to further its ends? Maybe. But unlike the president and other proponents of an endless war on constantly shifting foreign and domestic enemies, the folks gathered at Pitt offered a message that sounded true to the vision of America's founding fathers. "The real patriotism," said Islamic Center of Pittsburgh President Ahmed Abdelwahab, "is to practice your rights as a free citizen and protect your civil liberties."