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Last Updated: Monday, 13 September, 2004, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
State Of The Union: Opposing the Patriot Act
By Timothy Egan
In Seattle

As the presidential election approaches, the BBC is broadcasting the reflections of commentators around the US. This week journalist and writer, Timothy Egan, tells of a town that has taken a stand on civil liberties.

Go down to any city hall in any mid-sized American community and listen to the noise of democracy.

You will hear the usual complaints about neighbours whose dogs are too loud, about roads that need to be fixed, about cops that eat too many doughnuts.

George W Bush defended the Act in his 2004 State of the Union speech
President Bush believes the Patriot Act is essential to fight terrorism

You will also hear tributes to soldiers at war and girl scouts at home.

And, most likely, you will also hear a big family fight over the Patriot Act, a law passed just after the 11 September attacks that has tested the limits of civil liberties in the United States.

Listen, for example to Molly Gibbs:

"The Patriot Act is a tool to keep us in fear," she said, standing before the council in Tumwater, a small town in the far corner of the Pacific Northwest.

"We are losing our free speech, our right to privacy, our due process. It's all threatened by the Patriot Act."

Or listen to Robert Sand, who followed Molly Gibbs to the microphone:

"You people are hysterical," he said.

"All this talk of the Patriot Act taking away our civil liberties is ridiculous. Let the government do its job."

Name-calling

I have watched this spat, in one form or another, in a half-dozen communities across the nation, and I doubt if there is anything in contemporary American political life that has generated so much passion.

Just how much freedom can you have in the age of terror?

The meetings usually begin in earnest and lofty discussion and they end in slash-and-burn name-calling and red-faced accusations.

You can hear people invoke Hitler's Germany or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Now much of this, sure, is over the top but it goes to a core question: just how much freedom can you have in the age of terror?

When it is code yellow on the Homeland Security light, is it code red for the Bill of Rights?

At last count, more than 330 communities in 41 American states had passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act.

Big Brother

They have been stirred by voices on the left and the right, by conservatives who fear Big Brother intrusions and liberals who raise the spectre of the FBI crashing through homes of innocent people.

All of this is aimed at a federal law, one which gives little towns no say.

The Patriot Act has done its share of scaring people
It is a law that was passed virtually without dissent, just 45 days after the 11 September attacks.

And it is thick: 342 pages that nobody in Congress professed to read.

At the time, Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was desperately needed to save lives from further attacks by crazed terrorists.

It is hard to measure if the Patriot Act has been effective.

It was used, in part, to round up cells of alleged al-Qaeda sympathisers in Buffalo, New York and Portland, Oregon.

Secrecy

But it was also used to prosecute a strip club owner who tried to bribe politicians in Las Vegas. Here the government was employing its latest statute, I guess, to keep lap dancers at bay.

The law is so shrouded in secrecy that the government cannot say how and when or even if it has used the most controversial parts of the Patriot Act.

Two provisions have caused a storm of controversy.

One section gives the government new power to search people's homes without notifying them at the time.

This is known as a "sneak and peak" warrant. The old standard was called "knock and announce."

Another part gave the government new power to look into people's library, business and medical records.

The idea here was that it would provide the FBI with a tool to find some Jihadist plotting to make a dirty bomb based on technical books.

But librarians say this is massive invasion of privacy, and it has already had a chilling effect on what people read.

In Detroit, for example - the home of a large Muslim community - some children have stopped checking out books on Islam, librarians said.

Ghosts

Attorney General Ashcroft, for his part, says no one's reading habits have been reviewed. He called the charges of abuse of power: "Ghosts, unsupported by fact or example".

Well, for a ghost, the Patriot Act has done its share of scaring people.

As the comedian Robin Williams said, referring to nation-building in Iraq: "Here, take our Constitution. We're not using it anyway."

From fishing villages in Alaska to farm towns in the Midwest to old industrial burgs in the rust belt, the Patriot Act has spurred a wave of community protest, with local political councils saying they will not cooperate with federal agents who seek to enforce the law.

In Tumwater, a town of 13,000 people at the southern edge of Puget Sound, the idea was to make a stand and it came from one of the town council members, Wayne Williams.

Most days these Tumwater politicians spend their time on such things as whether to allow a new shopping mall to rise in a hay field, or debating the merits of adding a traffic light in town.

Quintessential

As near as anyone can tell, no federal agents have come swooping through Tumwater's municipal library, peering over records in search of terrorists among the stacks of periodicals and John Grisham novels.

Tumwater is quiet, in that quintessential American middle-class way, with its verdant lawns and a thick forest that muffles sound at the edge of town.

Most of its residents are white, prosperous and moderate in political outlook.

The town has more than its share of churches, retirees, and government bureaucrats who labour anonymously at the nearby Washington state capitol.

A resolution tells Tumwater city employees they do not have to obey certain provisions of the Act

Any Arab would stand out like a surfer in Iceland.

So why should Tumwater care about the Patriot Act?

"These are fundamental American rights we're talking about," said Mr Williams, one of seven members of the Tumwater council.

"And these rights begin at home."

Applause

The little council chambers in Tumwater has room for perhaps 50 people, no more. It was packed on this night.

"Some of you say our city council should not concern itself with national issues," said Grace Nelson, a grey-haired lady with a soft voice.

"I would say our library, our medical records affect everyone here in Tumwater."

Hear, hear. The room exploded in applause and there was also a hiss and a jeer or two after she spoke.

"What we have here," said Philip Vanderman, is "a conflict between the government not trusting us and how much we can trust them."

"Well put," another resident told Mr Vanderman, who accepted his compliment and sat down.

Well sure, others said, old Phil is right. But no matter what we do here in Tumwater, it will not mean a thing.

Grandstanding

And that opened a line to the cynics, who agreed with the notion that this public meeting was a useless gesture, just grandstanding.

They were paper patriots rising to oppose the Patriot Act.

"Not so," said Jackie Kettman-Thomas, representing the League of Women Voters, an old mainstream civic group known mainly for urging people to vote and, for good measure, not to litter.

She turned away from the microphone, away from council members and faced her neighbours. Her brow was furrowed. Her fist clinched.

"This is not an empty, symbolic gesture floating over the trees," she said. It was a lovely thought, a political sentiment floating over trees.

And then, more darkly, she added, "How would you know if your home or your office had been subject to one of those sneak and peek search warrants? How would you know?"

Vote

There was a silence - momentary - and then more grumbling, more arguing, some of it lofty, most of it prosaic but it felt genuine.

At the end of the night, the mayor banged his gavel and the Tumwater town council voted.

All those in favour of Resolution 2004-014, opposing provisions of the Patriot Act as it was formally known, say aye. And it passed: 5-2.

So now it is on the books - joining the others - a resolution that tells Tumwater city employees that they do not have to obey provisions of the Patriot Act that violate the Constitution.

What this means, apparently, is that if the FBI comes to the Tumwater library with a list of questions about books that somebody took out, the Tumwater library can say :"No, sorry, I'm directed by the city to say no."

Dismissed

And if the FBI tries to search somebody's home without a warrant, the poor homeowner can cite the same resolution, provided, of course, that the secret warrant became something less than secret.

I asked the Justice Department if these resolutions had any weight.

They dismissed them as words to the wind, without merit. Justice officials said most people in the United States supported the Patriot Act, by a large margin, according to some polls.

But here in Tumwater, people said they felt good, they felt their conscience was a bit cleaner, knowing they had some say, 2,800 miles from the nation's capital.

And, by the way, a week later it was back to questions about the new shopping mall and the extra traffic light.

State Of The Union is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Fridays at 2050 BST and repeated on Sundays at 0850 BST.

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