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Speech to City Council Against The Patriot Act

Good morning Mayor and Council Members. I am Dr. Steve Best, chair of the UTEP Philosophy Department. I am here today with Christopher Rawley from the ACLU and Ouisa Davis of Migrant Refugee Services. We are bringing to you a very important resolution to defend our liberties and the highest law of the land, the US Constitution.

We have a number of supporters preset with us. Many of us are wearing black to mourn the death of democracy in the era of the USA Patriot Act. Our cherished values and traditions of freedom and democracy can be revived only if enough citizens take action now.

In fall 2001, two monumental things happened to our nation. On September 11th, terrorists attacked our landmarks, our people, and our government. Six weeks later, on Oct 26th, Congress passed a new bill, perversely entitled the USA Patriot Act, that attacked the Constitution and our liberties. Without question, the first attack demanded new measures of security; but in no way did it necessitate the second attack on our rights and liberties.

Throughout the country, sane minds are recognizing that we can be secure without sacrificing our liberties – indeed, that we can be secure only through preserving our liberties. To date, 4 states and 300 communities -- including Austin, Dallas, and Albuquerque -- have passed resolutions declaring the Patriot Act to be unconstitutional. We hope that El Paso will join the growing list of true patriots who reject the Patriot Act as an unpatriotic betrayal of the Constitution.

We affirm the principle that the national is local and the local is national. Like other city representatives, you likely took an oath to defend the US Constitution. Federal laws affect citizens of El Paso as much as citizens elsewhere. The Patriot Act mandates, for instance, that local librarians divulge information about their patrons and that local police pursue alleged terrorists. Given that much of the Patriot Act is directed against non-citizens, its laws have special relevance to a border city such as ours.

The Patriot Act threatens a broad array of rights and liberties and is menacing to citizens and non-citizens alike.

* It allows the FBI and the CIA to wiretap phones, monitor e-mail, gain access to medical, financial and student records, see what library books people check out, and break into homes and offices without prior notification or approval from any court.
* It creates a new crime of domestic terrorism defined so broadly that it threatens to criminalize legal activities of protest and dissent.
* It allows non-citizens to be detained for months or years without right to council, to speak with their families, or even to hear the charges against them.

The Patriot Act’s impact on human rights and liberties is not just a theoretical possibility; both citizens and non-citizens are being surveilled, harassed, and detained. Thousands of foreigners have been detained and jailed for years, stripped of all rights.

In this time of great fear, it is tempting to think we need to sacrifice liberty to gain security. The sad truth is that we are neither free nor secure. Although thousands of foreigners have been subjected to lengthy secret interrogations, only one arrest has been made, while gaping security holes go untouched. The Patriot Act undermines national security because it squanders resources on harassing citizens rather than focusing on actual foreign terrorists, it employs inaccurate racial profiling and guilt-by-association approaches, and it alienates foreign communities we need as allies.

Before we try to install democracy abroad we best preserve it here at home. We must not become what the Patriot Act is trying to make us – a nation of secret arrests, closed trials, preventative detention, racial profiling, military tribunals, and Orwellian modes of surveillance and intimidation. Let the Statue of Liberty, not Guantanamo Bay, represent our deepest values.

Our nation will always face threats, and we must learn to preserve liberties or we will have little that is worth defending. The irony is great if US soldiers die in the name of freedoms that no longer exist. As Benjamin Franklin said, "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

The Constitution, not the Patriot Act, is the highest law of the land against which all else must be judged. We have a duty as Americans to uphold our Constitution and reject the tyranny of the government.

The Bush Administration plans to expand the Patriot Act even further. This is why we, the citizens of El Paso, must unite to defend the civil liberties guaranteed to us by the Bill of Rights. We need your leadership in this important task.

April 27, 2004

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