Human Rights

Punishing Thought Crime: Would New Bill Make YOU a Terrorist?

Meet the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.
According to Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., House Resolution 1955, otherwise known as the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, is a much-needed piece of national security legislation subject to unnecessary paranoia and fear. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the resolution, which Harman sponsored, is one step too close to an Orwellian nightmare, especially for the Democrats who concocted it.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. But first, let's back up and check the facts.

House Resolution 1955 was introduced without fanfare in April 2007 by Harman and passed with little disagreement in October 2007. In fact, more House politicians missed the vote than voted against it, and if that isn't unanimity as far as American politics go, I don't know what is. Considering the resolution engages three charged terms in succession -- "violent," "radical," "terrorism" -- it's hard to believe that it wasn't designed to scare the living daylights out of every representative who showed up to vote that day. It also might explain why it garnered 404 yeas and barely enough nays -- six, to be exact -- to count on one hand. And while 22 representatives declined to show up for the vote, those who felt that H.R. 1955 was a terrible waste of time and tax funds had no chance at voting it down anyway.

In any case, it's the Senate's headache now.

"Legislation such as this demands heavy-handed governmental action against American citizens where no crime has been committed," Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul complained to the House in December, after missing the vote while campaigning. "It is yet another attack on our constitutionally protected civil liberties. It is my sincere hope that we will reject such approaches to security, which will fail at their stated goal at a great cost to our way of life."

The initial text of H.R. 1955 states its aim clearly enough before falling into obfuscation -- "to prevent homegrown terrorism, and for other purposes" -- a characteristic that could be argued to be its defining template. Speaking of definitions (or the lack thereof), H.R. 1955 defines "homegrown terrorism" and "violent radicalization" nebulously; the former is merely "the use, planned use or threatened use of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States or any possession of the United States to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives," while the latter means "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." Ideologically based violence, in turn, is defined as "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."

Sounds fair enough, until you start crunching the language and come to the realization that practically anyone, on any given day, could fit the description. Which is vague on purpose, as one realizes the farther one digs.

H.R. 1955 also aims to establish not just a National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism, but also a university-related Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States, two new bureaucracies sure to attract the type of conceptualists that brought you everything from the lame-duck Meese Commission on the alleged link between pornographers and organized crime to the Project for the New American century's invasion and occupation of Iraq in the first place. In the case of the national commission, its supposedly nonpartisan membership is to be hand-picked by not just majority and minority leaders in the Senate and House, among others, but also the president -- which means George W. Bush until further notice. And if you think there is comfort to be found in the fact that both the House and the Senate are controlled by Democrats, think again.

"The problem lies not so much in who selects them," explained Mike German, ACLU National Security Policy Counsel, "but in the expertise the bill requires commission members to have and in the requirement that they be eligible for, and receive, security clearances. This requirement will make it far more likely government insiders are selected for the commission, which will of course effect the recommendations they later make."

Which is to say that the commission will likely be staffed by those already on board with H.R. 1955's suspicious xenophobia. Given the fact that its definitions of homegrown terrorism and violent radicalization are so wide-ranging to be practically indefinite, it is striking that Islam and Islam alone is the only major religion or belief system specifically mentioned in the bill. Which is no accident: In Jane Harman's prepared statement for H.R. 1955's related House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment hearing in November, ominously entitled "Using the Web as a Weapon: the Internet as a Tool for Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism," she had nothing to say about terrorists of any other kind. Instead, she mentions three Muslims, one a Jewish convert, who sympathize with al Qaeda or post YouTube videos showing how build bombs out of toy boats, before concluding that "These people no longer need to travel to foreign countries or isolated backwoods compounds to become indoctrinated by extremists and to learn how to kill their neighbors."

And while the text of H.R. 1955 takes some pains to back-door its way out of any anti-Islam imperatives -- with what could only be regarded as a footnote buried in Section 899F, subsection 7, that reads "individuals should not be targeted based solely on race, ethnicity or religion" -- almost all of the examples cited in the resolution itself as well as prepared statements by its sponsor and co-sponsors take pains to only mention Muslims.

But it's not just race and religion: The perception of H.R. 1955 is so bad that Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security Bennie Thompson actually had to post a fact sheet in December arguing, among other hilarious things, that the resolution "does not legislate thought or protected political expression and free speech. There are no provisions seeking to change the criminal code or set up a 'Big Brother' regime to put Americans under surveillance."

Methinks the pol doth protest too much.

But the behavioral aims of the National Commission and its Center of Excellence are irrelevant to the matter at hand, which is the generation of revenue and jobs for its friends in the national security sector. Harman's district alone encompasses defense industry giants, which is reflected in her list of top contributors like Boeing (extraordinary rendition!), Raytheon (the pain ray!) and more. And while Harman told In These Times in November that "We're not looking for political cronies," it would be a crime against credulity to claim that members of both the Commission and the Center will feature anyone she hasn't already known yet, directly or otherwise.

"It will no doubt prove to be another bureaucracy that artificially inflates problems so as to guarantee its future existence and funding," Paul predicted in his House speech. "But it may do so at great further expense to our civil liberties." It is, he concluded, an "unwise and dangerous solution in search of a real problem."

The most pressing liberty Ron Paul, the ACLU, Dennis Kucinich and pretty much most left- and right-leaning organizations fear outright is a restriction on the right of internet access, since the House Subcommittee hearings and text of the resolution seized upon it with almost draconian intent. "The Web as a Weapon?" The question begs another: How do you disarm that weapon?

"I agree that focusing a commission to study how Americans 'adopt' belief systems is problematic," said German, "but focusing the Commission on the Internet as an aid to, or facilitator of violent radicalization, will likely result in a recommendation to censor the internet in some manner, which would obviously be a violation of the First Amendment."

Kucinich, who was one of the scant few to vote against the resolution, was equally suspicious. But as usual, he's a bit more dystopian about such measures in his outlook, calling it the "thought crime bill" during a speech to supporters in December.

"If you understand what his bill does, it really sets the stage for further criminalization of protest," Kucinich said. "This is the way our democracy, little by little, is being stripped away from us."

"It only creates a commission," reminded German. "It does not create any new criminal laws or impose any penalties." But that's the bright side. The dark side is as Orwellian as Paul and Kucinich believe.

"The concern," German added, "is that what the commission might recommend to Congress will have great weight. And as we saw with the Patriot Act and the 9/11 Commission recommendations, in a crisis, Congress might just take something off the shelf to create new legislation rather than make its own determination of what truly needs to be done."

If you need a refresher on what that means, rewind your clocks about a decade. Travel back to a time when terrorism was defined as other people, those with a specific or nebulous grievance, including a great many reasonable ones, against the interests of what H.R. 1955 calls the "political and social objectives" of the United States. Long before America inflated its carbon emissions during a global warming crisis, or invaded a sovereign but nevertheless oil-rich nation without cause and killed upwards of hundreds of thousands of its people. Long before the age of Hummers, hedge funds and horror-porn flying in the face of resource wars started over tsunamis, famines and floods. Now fast-forward to the present, look into the mirror, and identify yourself as the terrorist you already may be.

If you had a good reason, that is. But that's not for you to decide. It's up to the National Commission and the Center for Excellence. And their top contributors.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.