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Locked up indefinitely? No lawyer? No trial? If you think this can’t happen to an American citizen, think again. Since 9/11 and the USA Patriot Act, America has faced a fearsome erosion of civil liberties. This week’s big budget documentary reveals how paranoia, fear and ethnic profiling have led to the subjugation of America’s constitutional rights. Made for a theatrical release by Hollywood director Robert Greenwald, ‘Unconstitutional’ exposes how the Patriot Act, made to defend America, is actually leaving it more vulnerable to future terrorist attacks. (“Move over Michael Moore, it’s Robert Greenwald’s time to shine”, CNN)

On the 11 October 2001, the Bush Administration pushed through a Bill that would change the face of America forever. “It was printed at 3:45 am, the morning before the vote on the house floor,” despairs Director of American Civil Liberties Union, Laura Murphy. “How many of the 435 Members of Congress had a chance, between 3:45AM and 11AM to read a Bill that was 345 pages long?” As Congressman Peter deFazio admits, “No member of Congress read this legislation before it was voted on. Not one.”

The Patriot Act was aimed at giving law enforcement agencies greater powers to fight and prevent terrorism. But under this guise, the government was able to authorise some of the worst violations of civil liberties. Americans could now be detained indefinitely without trial. They could be spied upon, their property searched and phones tapped without the authorities ever having to prove they were a danger. Federal Law Enforcement powers were expanded at the cost of individual liberties.

For immigrants living in the United States, the consequences of the act were even worse. Immigrants were rounded up in their hundreds and deported in secret within days of their arrest. With no rights to a lawyer, people would simply disappear “and their families wouldn’t have been able to trace them.” While in US custody, detainees “were beaten, shackled and yanked along the floor,” reveals Barbara Olshansky from the Centre of Constitutional Rights. They were “kept in solitary confinement … sometimes without any blankets in the middle of winter. The lights on for 24 hours, the windows covered over.”

Anyone who questioned the bill’s parameters was rebuffed as an unpatriotic traitor. As Attorney General John Ashcroft stated: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberties, my message is this: your tactics only aid terrorists.” But even law enforcement officials had doubts about what they were now doing. “We were targeting communities on the basis of stereotypes”, confesses a former CIA Director Vincent Cannistraro. “Someone with a beard. He prays by kneeling down, and putting his forehead on the ground. Must be a terrorist.” But has the act actually made America safer? Officials acknowledge that the policies heralded in by the act are isolating and antagonising the very communities they need to engage. As Cannistraro says, “when you base your anti-terrorism measures on stereotypes, you’re bound to fail.”

And the worry is that Big Brother seems set to stay. Powers granted under the act are already being used for petty crimes which have nothing to do with terrorism. As Syrian American Sam Hamoui laments, “We lost our civil liberties over it. We lost our freedom. And, that’s what the terrorists want, they wanted us to fall apart, they wanted us not to become united, they wanted us to separate and turn against each other. And you know, I think they might have succeeded”.


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