If you have the time to visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, as more than a million people do every year, in the same exhibit with the famous bell you’ll find an enlarged copy of a Daguerrotype photo of a group of abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. The early image captures Douglass while attending an anti-slavery convention in the year 1850.
Thousands convened in Cazenovia in August of that year to plot resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, an evil act of Congress that compelled Northern whites to serve as bounty hunters on behalf of Southern slaveholders.
Douglass ranks with the giants among upstate freedom fighters. At the time the image was taken by Ezra Greenleaf, Douglass was reviled by many in the North and South. With the insight that history grants, we consider him a hero. His challenge to America’s settled notions have been resolved. But in his lifetime he was called a traitor, and worse.
If you attempt to call the museum in Philadelphia, the area code you dial is 215. That also happens to be the number of the section of the misnamed “Patriot Act” that has been used by both the Bush and Obama administrations to permit the National Security Agency to keep track of all our phone calls.
The NSA, you might recall, collects what it calls “metadata” about all of us. It can pull up the details on who you called, when you called them, for how long you spoke. You don’t have to be suspected of a crime, it doesn’t have to get a warrant. The phone companies just hand over the records. Same goes for your email records. The NSA kept this a big secret for a decade until Edward Snowden exposed it in 2013.
Section 215 is about to expire. Barring congressional action on Sunday, May 31, it will die this weekend. As it should. Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who authored the Patriot Act just after Osama bin Laden’s terrorists took down the Twin Towers and attacked the Pentagon, says to anyone who will listen that he never intended his legislative language to be used to condone federal snooping into the private communications of law-abiding citizens.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, another Republican, clogged up the Senate’s deliberations on May 20 with an 11-hour oration, refusing to allow that body to vote on extending Section 215 even a single day. The Senate leadership was forced to convene a special session of Congress on a Sunday to try to keep the spy operation up and running. It intends to replace the Patriot Act with the Freedom Act, using stirring labels to deflect the criticism that this so richly deserves.
It is long past time to let this monstrous invasion of our privacy die. The government has ample recourse if it needs to examine phone records. The special courts set up to review national security wiretaps routinely approve them nearly every time Big Brother comes knocking. And the law has not had its intended effect. We have yet to hear of a single instance in which this dragnet has prevented a terrorist act.
The rejection of the government’s overreach is bipartisan here in Central New York. Both our former representative, Democrat Dan Maffei, when he was in office, and our current Republican representative, John Katko, have gone on record opposing Section 215.
And what of Edward Snowden? We might well be blissfully ignorant of this evil were it not for the soft-spoken geek who now lives in exile. Snowden’s act gave us the knowledge that we needed to preserve our freedom, knowledge that the Congress is hopefully now using to right this wrong. He has been persecuted and forced to flee his own country.
Last I saw him he was on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and not looking very happy. He has given up the life he knew. You don’t have to like the man to recognize a simple fact: He sacrificed his life to help preserve our freedom.
During the Vietnam War, draft resisters were attacked and persecuted, and only later, when President Jimmy Carter welcomed home those who fled to Canada, did we acknowledge the role they played in waking up the nation to the danger and folly of that war. And we welcomed them home.
Now it’s time to bring Snowden home. That means first offering him a pardon, for he currently faces federal espionage charges. Instead of persecution, what Snowden deserves is our gratitude for revealing violations of our nation’s ideals. Pardon Snowden, let him come home.
It is, after all, the season of celebrating patriots.