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Blake Bromley Headshot

Can't Win 'Hearts and Minds' Without Speech

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The U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult to fight the war on terrorism as a battle of hearts and minds this week. They removed speech, free speech, from the arsenal of weapons available.

The first amendment is not the only cause which suffered from this decision.

Once an organization is listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, it is criminally illegal to use weapons other than guns and bullets. It is illegal to offer material support, such as food, medicine or money. But more importantly, it's now also illegal to offer advice and training to increase human rights, for example, or use speech to convert terrorist organizations to more peaceful strategies.

The record in war zones is that guns and bullets may result in military victory but they do not cause a change in the visceral or intellectual allegiances of the vanquished. Changing hearts and minds requires speaking to the protagonists and following up with humanitarian aid.

The U.S. has always been more comfortable with the black and white worldview of "either you are for us or you are against us". The irony is that its military personnel are increasingly asked to engage in a strategy based upon a battle for hearts and minds even as its civilians are forbidden to do so. And the Supreme Court is telling civilians who use words that they must put them aside, and leave the battle to those who use guns.

It is difficult to believe that American soldiers do not provide what in law is material support to terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan in pursuing this strategy. However, the U.S. is unwilling to allow charities to pursue humanitarian, or even human rights, activities designed to change the hearts and minds of people currently engaged in terrorist violence.

It is not realistic to expect a hearts and mind strategy to succeed if every conversation must be conducted within the constraints of Chief Justice John Roberts' decision. It is quite clear that there is no desire for any but the military to carry on the war on terrorism.

For those outside the U.S., it is particularly intriguing that this law applies only to foreign terrorist organizations. Either there is a double standard for domestic terrorist organizations, or the U.S. is in denial as to whether homegrown terrorists are a threat, or even a possibility, in the U.S.

Fighting with words is necessary to win the war on terrorism. But it doesn't seem likely that the Supreme Court will change its opinion any time soon. Given that President Obama's current nominee for the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, argued the case, and that the dissenting judgment was written by Justice Stephen Breyer, whom she will replace, it is unlikely that we can look to the courts to support charities employing either words or actions in the battle for hearts and minds.