With overwhelming bipartisan support, Rep. Jane Harman's "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act" passed the House 404-6 late last month and now rests in Sen. Joe Lieberman's Homeland Security Committee. Swift Senate passage appears certain.
Not since the "Patriot Act" of 2001 has any bill so threatened our constitutionally guaranteed rights.
The historian Henry Steele Commager, denouncing President John Adams' suppression of free speech in the 1790s, argued that the Bill of Rights was not written to protect government from dissenters but to provide a legal means for citizens to oppose a government they didn't trust. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence not only proclaimed the right to dissent but declared it a people's duty, under certain conditions, to alter or abolish their government.
In that vein, diverse groups vigorously oppose Ms. Harman's effort to stifle dissent. Unfortunately, the mainstream press and leading presidential candidates remain silent.
Ms. Harman, a California Democrat, thinks it likely that the United States will face a native brand of terrorism in the immediate future and offers a plan to deal with ideologically based violence.
But her plan is a greater danger to us than the threats she fears. Her bill tramples constitutional rights by creating a commission with sweeping investigative power and a mandate to propose laws prohibiting whatever the commission labels "homegrown terrorism."
The proposed commission is a menace through its power to hold hearings, take testimony and administer oaths, an authority granted to even individual members of the commission - little Joe McCarthys - who will tour the country to hold their own private hearings. An aura of authority will automatically accompany this congressionally authorized mandate to expose native terrorism.
Ms. Harman's proposal includes an absurd attack on the Internet, criticizing it for providing Americans with "access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda," and legalizes an insidious infiltration of targeted organizations. The misnamed "Center of Excellence," which would function after the commission is disbanded in 18 months, gives the semblance of intellectual research to what is otherwise the suppression of dissent.
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While its purpose is to prevent terrorism, the bill doesn't criminalize any specific conduct or contain penalties. But the commission's findings will be cited by those who see a terrorist under every bed and who will demand enactment of criminal penalties that further restrict free speech and other civil liberties. Action contrary to the commission's findings will be interpreted as a sign of treason at worst or a lack of patriotism at the least.
While Ms. Harman denies that her proposal creates "thought police," it defines "homegrown terrorism" as "planned" or "threatened" use of force to coerce the government or the people in the promotion of "political or social objectives." That means that no force need actually have occurred as long as the government charges that the individual or group thought about doing it.
Any social or economic reform is fair game. Have a march of 100 or 100,000 people to demand a reform - amnesty for illegal immigrants or overturning Roe v. Wade - and someone can perceive that to be a use of force to intimidate the people, courts or government.
The bill defines "violent radicalization" as promoting an "extremist belief system." But American governments, state and national, have a long history of interpreting radical "belief systems" as inevitably leading to violence to facilitate change.
Examples of the resulting crackdowns on such protests include the conviction and execution of anarchists tied to Chicago's 1886 Haymarket Riot. Hearings conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for several decades during the Cold War and the solo hearings by a member of that committee's Senate counterpart, Joseph McCarthy, demonstrate the dangers inherent in Ms. Harman's legislation.
Ms. Harman denies that her bill is a threat to the First Amendment. It clearly states that no measure to prevent homegrown terrorism should violate "constitutional rights, civil rights or civil liberties."
But the present administration has demonstrated, in its response to criticism regarding torture, that it can't be trusted to honor those rights.
Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and R. William Robinson, an elected director of a Southern California water district, wrote this article for the History News Service.
Copyright © 2007, The Baltimore Sun