The Bush administration calls the USA Patriot Act a necessary tool in protecting civil liberties.
On Saturday more than 100 people at the Holiday Inn Expo Center challenged that assertion.
Those who attended the Columbia-Boone County League of Women Voters’ forum felt the Patriot Act put those liberties in jeopardy in its effort to balance homeland security with the freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights.
“Before coming into this, I didn’t know how we were going to fill five hours with conversation,” said Linda McDaniel, who is on the national board of the League of Women Voters.
Bertrice Bartlett, a civil liberties task force member, said the intent of the event was for people to come to the table as an interested community and not as experts.
Those who came brought with them the experiences of a nation shaken by tragic events in New York, Washington and a field in Pennsylvania just four years ago. A note-taker at each table documented participant responses, which, combined with a survey, will be forwarded to the National League of Women Voters.
The league will offer testimony of the results before Congress as it debates expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act of 2001. The current Patriot Act expires Dec. 31.
Of those who spoke, no one said they felt the threat of terrorism while walking down the street or sitting on their porch.
Many said they were unwilling to trade their civil liberties, such as the right to privacy and right to free speech, even for a perceived sense of security.
“I feel safe, but it’s all reminiscent of the 1950s and the duck-and-cover mentality,” said Linda Jarhamgi of Columbia.
One common notion among those who attended was that selling out due process is too high a price for feeling safe, and that those who spoke against the Patriot Act would be branded unpatriotic.
People at one table were worried about a loss of protections against invasion of privacy, and the blanket authority the Patriot Act vests in the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Are we in more danger from Islamic terrorists or from the Department of Justice?” said one man who did not want to be identified. “A climate has been created where we question what used to be simple.”
Former 25th District Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson of Columbia, who is now the service learning and fellowship coordinator for MU, shared an anecdote with the audience about the right to question societal norms. In eighth grade, she said she was disturbed by a film on communism shown in class.
“My teacher became furious and said how dare you question this when your father risked his life to protect us from communism,” Wilson said. “My father’s response was your teacher doesn’t understand. I risked my life so that you could ask those questions.”
The crowd responded with a burst of applause.
Some groups spoke about how the Patriot Act has polarized societal discussions about government and has also imposed Christian values on non-Christian nations.
One table of people traced roots of what they saw as a “God is on our side mentality” to America’s desire to carry democratic ideals abroad.
“When you’re distracted by a discernable problem like the war on terror you don’t have to worry about the intractable problems of government that have always been there,” said Chris Kelly, an associate circuit court judge for the 13th district. “It makes being a public official that much easier.”