Last month the U.S. House of Representatives flew a stealth mission under the mainstream media's radar, passing startling legislation that targets constitutionally protected political speech and paves a path for the government's suppression of dissent.
The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 would establish a ten-member National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism primarily comprised of Congress members. It would also give the Department of Homeland Security the power to create "a university-based Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism" to "study the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots" of U.S.-based radicalization and terrorism.
Despite its overwhelming support in the House--where it passed 404 to 6--this law is severely problematic in three main ways.
First of all, it's superfluous. We don't need more laws against "violent radicalization" and "homegrown terrorism." We already have plenty of legislation outlawing murder, conspiracy, arson, and other crimes that the government often associates with terrorism, not to mention wide-reaching terrorism laws like the USA PATRIOT Act, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, and the Military Commissions Act, all of which can be applied to U.S. citizens.
As such, the bill is less an honest effort to combat actual terrorism than it is ideology-drenched window dressing designed to win political points and electoral votes.
Second, the measure takes aim at political speech that is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Groups and individuals trying to further "political or social objectives" are explicitly the focus of the act, which brings up questions around the freedom of assembly.
From a judicial perspective, this bill is a constitutional challenge waiting to happen.
Sure the bill claims, "Any measure taken to prevent violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence...should not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights, or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents."
But given the actual text of the bill and the Bush administration's penchant to engage in warrantless surveillance, this flimsy caveat assuring that dissent will not be suppressed is tantamount to saying "I don't do cocaine, I just like the way it smells."
Third, too often the bill employs alarmingly over-broad definitions. The bill states that "ideologically based violence" is "the use, planned use, or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual to promote the group or individual's political, religious, or social beliefs."
It doesn't take the imagination of an avant-garde poet to envision scenarios in which radical political dissidents could get sucked into the wide-swirling vortex of "ideologically based violence."
What if protesters use their bodies during a direct action to take over an intersection or to block traffic, as anti-war activists in Olympia, Washington have done recently? Can this seriously be dubbed "homegrown terrorism"?
What about an anarchist who hurls a brick through a corporate window to make a political statement? Is this vandalism really "violent radicalization" or "homegrown terrorism"?
The bill also defines "violent radicalization" in part as "adopting or promoting an extremist belief system," but what exactly is "an extremist belief system"? Anti-capitalism? Socialism? Anarchism? Neo-conservatism?
Even a cursory look backward through U.S. history reveals heroic figures who could be dubbed "violent radicals" or "homegrown terrorists" under the proposed bill, from U.S. revolutionaries like Sam Adams to gun-toting slavery abolitionists like John Brown to militant civil-rights organizers like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Shortly after the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1787, "What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" The Senate, which is currently considering a virtually identical version of the bill, would do well to resurrect "the spirit of resistance" and finally say no to the Bush administration's persistent whittling of our civil liberties.
The House roll call vote demonstrates that this is not a partisan issue. The bill's supporters were obviously bi-partisan, but it's important to note that opposition to the bill was also bi-partisan, with three Democrats and three Republicans voting against it.
Unlike the media--who have performed a mums-the-word blackout on the bill--concerned citizens from the left, right, and center must oppose this legislation before the Senate slots it into law. We need a nonpartisan groundswell to stand up to this newest onslaught against our civil liberties, before it's too late.