Runaway Train: The True Story of the U.S. Patriot Act

While many people have heard of the Patriot Act, very few - including the congresspeople who voted for it – have any idea what it actually says. Is the Act a reasonable and logical application of the law to protect us from terrorism, as Colorado Governor Bill Owens said in a recent ACLU debate, or it an excessive and arbitrary curtailing of our civil liberties? A new film, "Unconstitutional: The War on Our Civil Liberties" – executive produced by Robert Greenwald ("Outfoxed" and "Uncovered") and written, produced and directed by Nonny de la Peña – jumps into the debate, providing the viewer with a detailed on-the-ground exploration of the ramifications of the notorious act.

Passed in the panicked aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Patriot Act was quickly fast-tracked through Congress at the urging of Attorney General John Ashcroft. The film explains that while there was a similar bipartisan anti-terrorism bill that Congress unanimously supported, a handful of the government's “top men” switched the bill at the eleventh hour, leaving Congress members with virtually no time to read the 342 page document before hastily passing the bill into law.

Following the Patriot Act's history, the film highlights the many draconian ways that the law invites infringement of the very civil liberties that set the United States apart from other nations. The film views the Patriot Act as a runaway train: unexpected, terrifying, and completely out of control. In between personal testimonies, legal explanations, and evidence of the act's misapplication, the film packs a large amount of information into one hour, leaving at least this viewer dizzy from the intensity.
The narration of "Unconstitutional" continually brings the viewer back to the actual language of the Bill of Rights and emphasizes how the Patriot Act places many of those rights in jeopardy. While the film strongly contrasts the chasm between the dejure language of the Constitution and the defacto post 9/11 political reality, it does so by also idealizing the intentions of the Constitution's original framers. Throughout the film, patriotic montages of the founding fathers and the Statue of Liberty accompany sweeping orchestrated music and excerpts of the actual Constitution. Presumably, the intention is to emphasize the spirit of democracy, freedom, and equality with which the founding fathers framed US law. This harkening back to the “good ol' days” over idealized the framers' intentions-forgetting the institutions of slavery, women as property, and class divisions these documents were based on. This is an understandable political strategy, but in simplifying the complexity of the original constitution and bill of rights, the film loses a small bit of its credibility.
Perhaps in deference to the importance of election year politics, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and John Ashcroft are depicted as the primary group determined to overrun the rights of US American citizens. While there may be more than a grain of truth to this, pitting these “evil men” against the “valiant” Congress and the US public not only romanticizes the latter two, but also fails to take into account the increasingly extremist tendencies of the US Republican party as a whole.

Yet these oversimplifications don't overshadow the film's compelling argument: the Patriot Act was indeed ushered into law before Congress could carefully consider its consequences and without any mechanisms for public intervention. The result is that while the US is no safer than it was before September 11th, this legislation has enacted legal changes that not only target possible “terrorists” but also criminalize almost any U.S. citizen who dissents. The many personal narratives in the film add a rich texture to these bare bone facts about the Patriot Act and illustrate who really pays for this reactionary and discriminatory legislation: immigrants, people of color, and potentially every single US citizen.

Overall, "Unconstitutional" presents a long overdue and detailed-not just topical-examination of the actual text and ramifications of the law, something that has been largely missing from mainstream media, and even other recent political documentaries. At a time when the “Patriot Act 2” is being quietly reintroduced in Congress, "Unconstitutional" is a desperately needed tool that can educate the US public about the real and often hidden consequences of the Patriot Act.

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