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The USA Patriot Act Unveiled: 22 Years After 9/11, Unraveling the Impact on American Liberties and Security

Examining Purpose, Societal Impact, and the Consequences of Legislative Reactivity


One may ask, how is legislation passed 22 years ago relevant in current-day social justice conversations?

As we stand more than two decades removed from the harrowing events of 9/11, the time is ripe for a meticulous analysis that aims to dissect and interpret the enduring effects of the USA PATRIOT Act. This legislation, conceived in the crucible of heightened emotions and national trauma, necessitates a nuanced examination to unravel its implications and consequences in a more measured and detached context. By undertaking such an analysis, we can shed light on how the landscape of civil liberties, national security, and governmental powers has evolved over the years. Stripping away the immediacy of post-9/11 emotions allows for a more objective evaluation of the Act's impact on individual privacy, government surveillance practices, and the delicate balance between security and freedom. This examination promises to unveil the long-term ramifications, successes, and challenges of a law that was crafted in the aftermath of a pivotal moment in history, providing valuable insights into its continued relevance and potential areas for reform in a changed geopolitical landscape.

Terrorism in America Before 9/11

The term "terrorism" is inherently subjective, rooted in the complex interplay of political, social, and cultural perspectives. At its core, terrorism relies on the binary of a perpetrator or criminal and a victim, a distinction that is fraught with subjectivity and context-dependent interpretation. Unlike conventional crimes with clearly delineated legal boundaries, terrorism is often entangled with political motives and ideological struggles, making it challenging to establish an objective definition that transcends diverse perspectives. The very nature of terrorism involves the use of violence or intimidation to instill fear or coerce a population, and this intent often blurs the lines between criminal acts and acts deemed justifiable by certain groups. This gray area is exacerbated by the fact that what may be considered terrorism in one geopolitical context could be viewed as resistance or liberation in another. Political motivations, historical grievances, and cultural nuances all contribute to the varying interpretations of terrorist acts. The binary of criminal and victim, essential to the concept of terrorism, is fluid and contingent upon the observer's point of view. What one sees as a legitimate struggle for independence, another may label as an act of terrorism. The complexity of this binary dynamic is further compounded by the fluid nature of power dynamics in global politics, making it virtually impossible to arrive at an entirely objective definition that universally applies across diverse societies.

Before the epochal events of 9/11, the United States government grappled with a lack of uniformity in defining terrorism, as individual states and federal agencies maintained distinct interpretations. This divergence was notably evident within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which operated with its distinct definition of terrorism. In the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin Volume: 56 Issue: 11, it is noted that “The FBI defines terrorism, domestic or international, as the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government or civilian population in furtherance of political or social objectives” (Pomerantz, 1987). This definition does not delineate any specific actions or methodologies as inherently terror-inducing but rather perpetuates the subjectivity of the concept by leaving space for interpretation. No distinction is made between international and domestic criteria, granting terrorism from any angle the same perspective.

The Reinassance of Domestic Terrorism and Surveillance

To prevent further tragedies and instill a new level of safety in American citizens, the USA Patriot was crafted. One crucial aspect involved the broadening of surveillance powers, allowing law enforcement agencies to monitor a wider range of communications, including emails, phone calls, and internet activities. Section 206 introduced the use of roving wiretaps, allowing individuals to be followed across devices, and providing flexibility in surveillance efforts to expedite investigations. The signature amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act expanded the scope of surveillance beyond traditional foreign intelligence targets, allowing for the issuance of orders to monitor non-U.S groups in Section 207. Now, any American or non-citizen raising the eyebrows of counter-terrorism investigators became subject to exposure upon the government’s request.

A specifically significant expansion of Act is the installation of a fifth provision for National Security Letters or NSLs. An NSL is a type of administrative subpoena issued by U.S. government agencies to push businesses and organizations to provide certain customer records and other information without the need for a court order or grand jury subpoena. The letters are typically accompanied by a nondisclosure requirement, restricting the recipient from publicizing any contents or requirements of the letter. Author Artemus Ward of Northern Illinois University summarizes the concept of this amendment, noting that the Act “bolstered existing law that enabled the FBI to use National Security Letters... to demand various records and data without probable cause or judicial oversight” (Ward, n.d). The removal of otherwise required checks and balances only granted the FBI and other government agencies the leeway to obtain information through an unopposed binding document with varying levels of probable cause. In an analysis of How Patriotic is the Patriot Act? by Amitai Etzioni, reviewer Jules Boykoff comments on the aftermath of the policy expansion concerning NSLs, identifying that the Act “Led to a marked increase in the FBI’s use of national security letters—100 times the historic average—and the FBI itself has admitted that national security letters allow the Bureau to collect information about citizens who are not suspected of any wrongdoing” (Boykoff, 2006). This FBI’s admission and drastic rise in NSLs raises concerns about the potential for overreach as a result of the Act broadening the government’s scope.

Beyond the legal and judicial expansions, yet another definition of terrorism was added to United States legislation. This definition specifically identified domestic terrorism as a separate entity from international terrorism and enlists specific behaviors deemed terroristic. Section 802 encapsulates the new perspective as follows:

domestic terrorism

In contrast to the aforementioned FBI definition, the Bush administration highlights not only intentions and motives qualifying as terror-inducing in nature, but physical actions such as kidnapping and assassination. Now working concurrently with the FBI’s standing definition, the government can further expand provisions by automatically determining specific physical behaviors as terroristic. The legal and judicial surveillance expansions coupled with the specific, yet still subjective, definition proposed in the Act open up a whole new realm of counterterrorism efforts for the United States Government.


Reactionary Policymaking: A Choice Between Security and Freedom

The age-old conflict of United States legislation is the question of what is more valuable to an American: security or freedom. This dichotomy finds itself scattered throughout philosophical and political debates, often separating Republicans from Democrats, socialists from capitalists, and so on. The USA Patriot Act is no exception to this controversy and serves as a manifestation and proliferation of the historic binary. Coupled with this is the issue of creation and application of policies in response to a particular incident, or crisis, known as reactionary policymaking. Reactionary policies, as opposed to proactive or forward-thinking ones, are developed as hasty responses to a specific problem or circumstance that requires immediate action. These policies oftentimes lack the same extensive consideration as standard policies, thus creating even more space for potential government overreach or infringement of civil liberties. In essence, the tension between security and freedom becomes particularly pronounced during periods of reactionary policymaking like 9/11, as policymakers grapple with the immediate need for heightened security and government trust while maintaining the principles that define the nation's democratic system.

The Shackles of Islamophobia

When discussing the USA PATRIOT Act, it is vital to point out the shift in American culture and society, specifically the rise of islamophobia and alienation, that emerged and continues to perforate American society to date. Racial and religious profiling became a rampant concern as Muslim communities faced increased scrutiny based on their perceived association with Islamic radical terrorist groups. This climate of suspicion not only affected individuals directly targeted by law enforcement but also permeated society at large, influencing public perceptions and contributing to the normalization of discriminatory attitudes. President Bush’s infamous line on September 20th, 2001, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” contributes heavily to the polarized narrative that characterizes the early stages of the War on Terror and Islamophobic hate crimes in America. This binary framing oversimplifies the complexities of global alliances and regional conflicts and perpetuates the stereotype that all Muslims are, or are in support of, radical terrorism. This sentiment is furthered by Bush’s labeling of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the Axis of Evil, two of three countries being Islamic republics that are predominantly Muslim. The terms "Islamic terrorism" and "Islamic extremism" were frequently used during the Bush administration. While the intention might have been to emphasize the connection to extremist ideologies, the terminology ended in the entire religion of Islam being hand and hand with terrorism in the minds of some.

Crime trends from immediately after 9/11 indicate the weight of President Bush’s words, actions, and the USA Patriot Act truly contributed to islamophobia in America. According to FBI statistics, there were seventeen times as many anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2001 as there were in 2000, escalating from 28 to 481 (Federal Bureau of Investigations, 2002). These numbers only account for reported crimes, leaving the true prevalence of Islamophobic verbal and physical threats to be presumably astronomical. Murder, arson, and vandalization are only some examples of the variety of crimes committed against persons perceived as Muslim directly following 9/11. The sad reality is that this stereotype crafted by the events of 9/11 has remained a constant for over 20 years. Civilians are not the only perpetrators in this crisis, as the USA PATRIOT Act justified racial profiling and overreach, a relevant example being the “random” searching of Muslim Americans in airports. The idea of random searches is framed as standard procedure, however, research indicated that they are merely an excuse to investigate individuals perceived to have a Muslim appearance.

Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2017 on Muslim Americans living in American society, to which one in five Muslim Americans reported being singled out by airport security (Pew Research Center, 2017). These numbers are consistent with another study conducted by the PRC, which indicated 18% of Muslim Americans have been stopped. Human Rights Watch summarizes the essential basis for this trend in writing, “The fear of another terrorist attack placed great pressure on airport authorities and detained those passengers who presented similar characteristics to those who committed the 9/11 attacks” (Human Rights Watch, n.d). The steady conditions of this racial profiling by law enforcement from 2007-2017 can indicate there has been a steady proliferation of Islamophobic redirect in government agencies alongside American citizens, even after the installment of the USA FREEDOM Act.

The damages of the USA PATRIOT Act and reactionary policymaking are deeply scarred in American culture. With this, working to discard the narrative generated by the government in 2001 is something that continues to plague the United States Muslim community 22 years later. Surveys performed by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in their 2022 American Muslim Poll report further prove the haunting effects of Bush's reactionary politics.

Modern Evaluation of a Historic Policy

Despite the age of the USA PATRIOT Act, modern evaluation of the policy is still not only beneficial but highly necessary. Through an impact evaluation, the positives, negatives, and suggested revisions can be clearly identified and laid out in the context of the current day.


Positively, the USA PATRIOT Act the legislation provided law enforcement and intelligence agencies with enhanced tools to combat terrorism, fostering improved information sharing and modernized investigative techniques. These changes were seen as crucial for adapting to evolving threats in the digital age and bolstering the government's ability to prevent terrorist activities. Additionally, the Act aimed to streamline communication between agencies, breaking down barriers that had hindered cooperation in the past.

However, these expansive surveillance powers granted by the Act actively infringe upon individual privacy rights, leading to abuse and unwarranted intrusion into the lives of citizens, specifically Muslim Americans. The lack of sufficient oversight mechanisms perpetuates apprehensions, still prompting ongoing debates 22 years later about the balance between national security imperatives and the protection of civil liberties.

The PATRIOT Act's enduring impact lies not only in its immediate policy outcomes but also in the ongoing dialogue and legal dynamics that continue to shape the nation's approach to counterterrorism, privacy, and civil liberties. With the information and analyses explored in this piece, an impact evaluation could conclude that the negative aspects of the USA PATRIOT Act have proven to outweigh the immediate positives regarding enhanced security, as society is still plagued with social bounds and racial disparity stemming from its creation.

The USA PATRIOT Act serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of reactionary policymaking and legislative ignorance resulting in the continued fever of islamophobia that is overcast in social and law enforcement actions. Even with the USA FREEDOM Act being in effect for 6 years, the withstanding side effects of Bush’s approach to 9/11 through the USA PATRIOT Act haunt American society and have actively changed how Americans live under the Constitution permanently.



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Airports?” Islamophobia Studies Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 2019, p. 11,

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… American Political Science Association.

Human Rights Watch. (n.d.). V. the September 11 Backlash.

Pew Research Center. “U.S. Muslims Concerned about Their Place in Society, but

Continue to Believe in the American Dream.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 26 July 2017,

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Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Crime in the United States - 2001," Federal Bureau of


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