This week, for the first time in years, everyday Americans can theoretically make a phone call without the government spying on them.
That’s because just after midnight Sunday night, Section 215 of the Patriot Act expired.
Section 215, of course, is the part of Patriot Act that the NSA uses to collect the phone records of millions of people.
Lawmakers had known for months that it was going to expire, but thanks to opposition from Rand Paul and a handful of other senators, the Senate was unable to come to deal to extend it and several other key parts of the Patriot Act before a midnight deadline.
This, of course, is a big PR victory for Paul, who’s banked his entire presidential campaign on his history of standing up to the surveillance state.
It’s still too soon to see, though, whether or not this will have any real, lasting victory for privacy rights.
That’s because while Rand Paul got the campaign highlight he wanted when the government began shutting down its bulk metadata collection program, Congress could, in just a matter of days, reauthorize that program with only a few cosmetic changes.
You see, at the same time as Rand Paul was hamming it up for the cameras last night, the Senate voted to take up the so-called USA Freedom Act.
Passed by the House earlier in May, this bill would extend the three parts of the Patriot Act that expired at midnight and make a few minor changes to the NSA’s mass surveillance program.
But despite its nice-sounding name, the USA Freedom Act is really just more of the same.
Shahid Buttar of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee explained why when he came on this program a few weeks ago.
Now, Mitch McConnell will allow Senators to make amendments to the USA Freedom Act, but the only thing that’s really going to put the legacy of the Bush years behind us is to let the Patriot Act expire entirely – as parts of it have already done.
Unfortunately, that’s probably not going to happen.
Come Tuesday or Wednesday, the Senate will probably pass the USA Freedom Act and the NSA’s mass surveillance programs will go on as before, with a few minor changes.
That’s because in the 14 years since President Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, US society has fundamentally changed – for the worse.
We’re no longer the land of the free and the home of the brave; we’re the land of the kind-of-free and the home of the scared silly.
The Patriot Act and the post-9/11 terrorism freak-out didn’t just radically enhance the power of our intelligence agencies – it also had a huge impact on our culture.
We’re now a “see something, say something society,” a society that is always on the edge of all-out paranoia.
We’re scared to death of terrorism, even though you’re statistically more likely to die in a car accident, drown in a bathtub or get struck by lightning than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack.
If someone says the word “terrorism,” we’ll throw away our freedoms in a second, even if there’s no proof that doing so will make us any safer.
Politicians know this, which is why many are making it sound like the apocalypse is going to rain down on us unless we reauthorize the NSA’s mass surveillance program.
President Obama is part of the problem.
He supports the USA Freedom Act, and warned in his weekly address Saturday that allowing the Patriot Act to expire would leave America open to attack.
On the other hand, it’s been 20 hours since Section 215 expired, and as far as I can tell, the country’s still standing.
Which makes sense, because the NSA’s mass surveillance program has never been definitively proven to have stopped any terrorist attack whatsoever.
Ever since the scared little men of the Bush administration came to Washington, we’ve let ourselves be scared by everyone and everything.
It’s time for that to stop, and it’s time for us to regain the freedoms – and courage – we lost 14 years ago when the Patriot Act first passed.
We’re supposed to be the home of the free and the land of the brave.
Let’s start acting like it, and let the Patriot Act expire.