Pre-Crime and the Patriot Act

By: Derick Ariyam



            Minority Report directed by Stephen Spielberg, is a movie set in the future that toys with the revolutionary idea of pre-crime, the ability to foresee crime before it happens. Initially, this would seem the apotheosis of law enforcement; however, as the movie later points out, there are some morally unsettling elements about pre-crime, particularly the incongruous notion of incarcerating someone who technically didn’t do anything.

            However, the motivations are clear why such a system would be implemented. There is a universal understanding that crime is unacceptable, and if possible should be prevented at all costs. But, recently, with the execution of the Patriot Act, many have began to rethink this initial claim, all costs, and replace it with some more rational provisions—perhaps a privacy clause or maybe a guarantee to ensure basic human rights.

            What exactly is the Patriot Act? The answer depends on who answers your question, and there is usually just one of two responses: It is either a “savage curtailing of our basic human rights as citizens”, or “a vital tool that law enforcement needs to protect our nation from those that would do it harm”. As you can see, the viewpoint is very polarized, and like the concept of pre-crime, it is a revisit to the question of “costs”, and how much can be sacrificed for safety. With the Patriot Act in place, law enforcement is given more freedom to pursue terrorist suspects without as many legal impediments as before. Conceptually, the motivations are worthy and honorable, but like pre-crime, the patriot act has instilled paranoia within the public, a fear that perhaps someone could apply the Act in an unjust way, or that someone may be wrongfully suspected as a terrorist.

            Both of these systems, in order to be successful, require a great deal of trust on behalf of the public. The Patriot Act and Pre-Crime essentially grant a great deal of power to law enforcement, and with this, their will be always be a degree of skepticism on how appropriately these tools are being wielded. The Patriot Act has its skeptics, as does Pre-Crime in the film.

            In addition to the intrinsic public skepticism that both systems share, there is also something very familiar between these two systems—they are both fundamentally motivated by the same vehicle, prevention. The Patriot Act, in the most basic sense, was construed so that law enforcement could prevent future terrorist threats on American soil; the attractive feature of Pre-crime was that crime was being prevented. The keyword “prevention” is the single driving force between both of these systems. However, the side-effect of this inoculation from possible threat is the apocryphal notion that threats do not exist. For example, if you have a very good firewall protecting your personal computer, and your computer has never once been exploited due to this software, after a while, you may forget that the firewall is there protecting you, and wrongly assume that there is no real threat out there. This is the irrevocable side effect of prevention-type systems, and their true merit is only seen by those running it.

            Although Pre-Crime has been introduced as something in the future, there is no question that if such a system would be implemented, it would fall into the same public mistrust as our current Patriot Act. It is a difficult thing to provide for safety, while walking on egg shells through privacy and human rights’ concerns; it seems, for the most part, the two are almost mutual exclusive. How can baggage handlers at airports ensure there are no weapons aboard a plane, unless they scan every piece of baggage—treating every bag and every person as a possible threat. In order to ensure safety, the public will have to make sacrifices; but at the moment, it seems many are not ready to do that just yet.