A Growing Threat to Civil Liberties

"Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007"

by Ralph E. Shaffer and R. William Robinson

http://www.dailynews.com/, 11/17/2007


IF there was any doubt about the imminent threat to free speech and thought inherent in Rep. Jane Harman's "Thought Police" bill, one need only read the testimony of LAPD Deputy Chief Michael Downing.
The Los Angeles Police Department, through Downing's anti-terrorism bureau, had already implemented the most dangerous provisions of what Harman would do nationwide. Only a loud public outcry got the LAPD to drop - or at least put a more benign name - on its efforts, for now, anyway.

With overwhelming bipartisan support, Harman's "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007" passed the House 404-6 late last month. Swift passage through Sen. Joe Lieberman's Homeland Security Committee appears certain.

It was before Lieberman's committee that Downing revealed his plan to keep tabs on Muslim organizations in Los Angeles. Under the guise of helping them integrate into the larger community, Downing wanted to know what Muslims are taught, what they read and whose voices among them we should support.

His bureau had already talked with a federally financed think tank at USC, a forerunner of the kind Harman has in mind to implement her bill. Like Downing, Harman thinks it likely that the U.S. will face a native brand of terrorism in the immediate future and offers a plan to deal with such ideologically based violence.

Harman's bill threatens constitutional rights by creating an anti-terrorist commission with sweeping investigative power and a mandate to propose laws prohibiting whatever the commission deems homegrown terrorism.

Specifically, the commission is a menace through its power of hearings and subpoenas, a power expressly authorized for even a single member of the commission - little Joe McCarthys running around the country holding their own private hearings. Harman's bill would also assign the commission the insidious power to infiltrate targeted organizations, to hire consultants and contractors to carry out its work, and to create the misnamed "Center of Excellence" which will continue to exist after the commission is disbanded. The proposal also includes an absurd attack on the Internet, criticizing it for providing Americans with "access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda."

While its purpose is to prevent terrorism, Harman's bill doesn't criminalize any specific conduct nor contain penalties. But the commission's findings will be cited by those who see a terrorist under every bed and who will demand passage of criminal penalties that further restrict free speech and other civil liberties. Personal or group actions 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 Harman denies that her proposal creates "thought police," it defines "home grown terrorism" as the "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 can argue that the individual or group thought about doing it.

Any social or economic reform is thus brought under the gun. Have a march of 100 or 100,000 people in support of 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, the court or the government.

"Violent radicalization" is defined as promoting an "extremist belief system." American governments, both state and national, have a long history of interpreting radical "belief systems" as inevitably leading to violence as a means of facilitating change.

Examples are numerous. California's 1919 criminal syndicalism law was used successfully to break up the Communist Labor Party, sending its leaders to San Quentin for membership in an organization that, the government maintained, advocated force and violence. That law was resurrected in the 1960s in Los Angeles for use against black activists.

The hearings conducted by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee for several decades during the Cold War and the solo hearings by a member of that committee's Senate counterpart, Joe McCarthy, demonstrate the dangers inherent in Harman's legislation. California's "Tenney Committee" smeared reformers in a similar manner.

Harman denies that her bill is a threat to free speech. It clearly states that no measure to prevent homegrown terrorism should violate "constitutional rights, civil rights or civil liberties." But as in waterboarding, all the government need say is that "We don't torture," or in this case, "We don't violate the Constitution."

Unless the public applies pressure on a Senate ready to pass this turkey, what LAPD's Downing tried to achieve here will be implemented nationwide.


Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. William Robinson is director of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Water District.

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