Beach Boys and the Patriot Act

August 04, 2004

I knew something was bugging me about the Patriot Act and the way the administration has been using and defending it. The Beach Boys finally explained it for me.

If we deconstruct the story of one of their big hits, a young lady explains to her father that she would like to borrow his car to go to the library. He agrees and gives her the keys. She promptly forgets "all about the library, like she told the old man now" and instead goes "driving just as fast as she can now," having "fun, fun, fun till her daddy takes the T-bird away."

The Patriot Act was passed very quickly after 9/11. It contains a mixture of good ideas, law enforcement wish lists, and "it seemed like a good idea at the time." It is a rough draft of a revised criminal code.

In the recent Justice Department releases defending the Patriot Act, Ashcroft has emphasized a lot of cases where the provisions in the act were used to convict non-terrorists of ordinary crimes. He has made a number of vague and ill-defined claims about its power in thwarting or deterring terrorism, and appears to have botched every single Justice Department terror investigation - or more precisely every investigation that has become public has been botched.

Now, it may be that we want to revise our criminal code and investigatory procedures so that the loosened rules in the Patriot Act can be used for ordinary criminal prosecutions. That is a perfectly reasonable proposal and one that deserves debate. I know that I would support several of the changes in the Patriot Act as common-sense ways to update 1920s law to 21st century technology. For example, give investigators the choice between getting a wiretap warrant for a particular phone or on a particular person. If they get a warrant on the person, then they can listen in to anything they can find, but anything they get on any other person is no go.

But, what Ashcroft has done instead is tell us that he needs the T-bird to go to the library, and then he has gone tooling around having fun with his friends. The logical response is to take the T-bird away, even if he whines that he really NEEDS to go to the library. Even if he does, he can find another vehicle.

Alas, Bush and Rove seem to have determined to use the Patriot Act as a litmus test for patriotism. A vote against it, they suggest, is a vote for Osama Bin Laden. And then they praise Ashcroft for his diligence in using the Act in ways that were certainly not intended by Congress when they passed it. I see why Brad DeLong talks about encouraging the grown-up Republicans, because the Bush administration is acting, in far too many ways, like a batch of spoiled children. And it is hurting all of us.

The metaphor breaks down at this point. The daddy in the song can take the T-bird away but is unlikely to disown his daughter. We as voters are likely to respond to GWB's attempts to make the Patriot Act a referendum on his administration by turning them out of office and then hopefully writing a coherent and distinctive set of revised criminal codes and anti-terror codes. Send the daughter to reform school, adopt a nerd, and send HER to the library in the T-bird.

Posted by Red Ted at August 4, 2004 12:20 PM | TrackBack