At first glance, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 may not seem dangerous. Yet nothing is ever what it seems, and this bill is no exception.
On its face, the Act, which was approved in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 404 to 6, would establish two government-appointed bodies (one a national 10-member commission, the other a university-based Center for Excellence) to study, monitor and propose ways of curbing homegrown terrorism and extremism in the United States. However, as journalist Jessica Lee points out, the legislation could actually succeed in "broaden[ing] the definition of terrorism to encompass both First Amendment political activity and traditional forms of protest such as nonviolent civil disobedience."
The danger is the legislation's vague definitions of violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism and the commission's power to label individuals and groups as possible terrorists. Violent radicalization, for example, is defined as "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change." Note that you don't actually have to commit violence to be labeled a violent radical. You just have to adopt or promote a belief system that differs with the government, which is easy enough in these times of economic instability, expansive government powers and endless wars.
The definition for homegrown terrorism is equally vague: "the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born [or] raised...within the United States...to intimidate or coerce the United States, the civilian population...or any segment thereof."
Would abortion protesters or anti-war organizers be accused of using "force" to "intimidate or coerce" others? What about people who promote immigration views that are considered "extremist"? By Congress failing to define what an "extremist belief" is, what would constitute "ideologically based violence" or the use of "force," it could mean anyone who expresses a belief contrary to that held by the occupants of the White House.
The concern, as Lee points out, is that the law will be used "against U.S.-based groups engaged in legal but unpopular political activism, ranging from political Islamists to animal-rights and environmental campaigners to radical right-wing organizations. There is concern, too, that the bill will undermine academic integrity and is the latest salvo in a decade-long government grab for power at the expense of civil liberties."
The Senate version of this legislation, which finds that domestic threats "cannot easily be prevented through traditional Federal intelligence or law enforcement efforts," requires the creation of what would essentially join federal agents and local police together in a single paramilitary entity.
"This sounds like part of the same continuum we've experienced in the last seven years, which is the effort to deputize local law enforcement to work with the FBI and national agencies without local accountability, as we have seen with the establishment of joint-terrorism task forces across the country," said Hope Marston of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. "When you talk about working with local law enforcement to possibly spy on groups and individuals to try to find the so-called 'needle in the haystack,' this definitely poses a threat to local autonomy."
To Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States, H.R. 1955, as it is referred to, is just one more in a long series of laws passed in times of foreign policy tensions. He points out that the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, for instance, sent people to jail for criticizing the Adams administration. And "During World War I, the Espionage Act and Sedition Act sent close to a thousand people to jail for speaking out against the war. On the eve of World War II, the Smith Act was passed, harmless enough title, but it enabled the jailing of radicals -- first Trotskyists during the war and Communist party leaders after the war, for organizing literature, etc., interpreted as conspiring to overthrow the government by force and violence."
The true targets of this bill may be the anti-globalists and radical environmentalists who pose a threat to the corporate powers. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the congresswoman who introduced the bill, has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with the RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank with close ties to the military-industrial-intelligence complex.
"Trends in Terrorism," a 2005 study by RAND, contains a chapter titled "Homegrown Terrorist Threats to the United States." In that study, RAND maintains that "homegrown terrorism" will come from anti-globalists and radical environmentalists who "challenge the intrinsic qualities of capitalism." RAND also claims that anti-globalists and radical environmentalists "exist in much the same operational environment as al Qaida" and pose "a clear threat to private-sector corporate interests, especially large multinational business."
Any thought, speech or action that threatens corporate hegemony and profit under this law--however protected it might be by the Bill of Rights--could be considered an act of homegrown terrorism.
This is not unlike the government's Red Scare tactics used during the 1950s McCarthy era when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers simply for disagreeing with the government or associating with those who did so.
We are the descendants of a long line of dissenters dating back to the early days of this nation, from the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution and our Founders standing up to King George's acts of tyranny to civil rights activists staging sit-ins to protest segregation and peace activists protesting the armaments industry.
As long as there are individuals speaking out against what they see as injustice, oppression or corruption, there will always be those in high places attempting to silence or suppress them. But we must not be intimidated or silenced. Instead, we need to raise our voices even louder or our constitutional rights will be obliterated.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.