The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act Undermines Freedom

The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act – H.R. 1955 was passed by a landslide vote (a bipartisan vote of 404-6) in the House of Representatives in October of 2007.

An article Rule by fear or rule by law?, (Seiler & Hamburg) lists a number of legal decisions over the past 10 years including the VRHTPA and concludes: “The Constitution does not allow the executive to have unchecked power under any circumstances. The people must not allow the president to use the war on terrorism to rule by fear instead of by law.”

Many have expressed concerns the fact that the language of the act is very vague, and its very vagueness could be used to stifle legitimate political dissent. As Abel Tomlinson noted: “Everyone concerned with freedom of speech should fight to stop VRHTPA from becoming institutionalized. As previously mentioned, it targets individuals with “extremist belief systems.” This dangerously vague language could be abused by blurring distinctions between violent terrorists and peaceful dissenters. Critics believe the flexibility in the definition of “extremist” is intentional and could bring about a government crackdown on rebellious activity and lead to the infiltration of universities under the guise of fighting terrorism.” This might even extend to some acts of environmental protest being classed as “eco-terrorism” – in fact, John Vidal has suggested that: “The attack on the twin towers led directly to the draconian Patriot Act, which created a new category of domestic terrorism and allowed the FBI to expand its domestic and international powers. Many actions previously considered vandalism (and attracting sentences of two to four years) could now be classed as major acts of terror, and life sentences could be passed.” The Center for Constitutional Rights has warned: “Could Rosa Parks, who was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 for violating segregation laws by sitting in the white-only section of a bus and refusing to move, be considered a “homegrown terrorist” by the U.S. government today? Under the terms defined in the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act she just might be.”

Some have suggested that this act might be aimed particularly at the American Muslim community, and spell trouble for their civil rights.

This is bad enough, but in February of 2008 the President asked the Senate to broaden the wiretapping section of the bill to broaden the governments spying capabilities and to give legal immunity to the utilities that helped in the eavesdropping without warrants that Mr. Bush approved after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Former Presidential Candidate, Dr. Ron Paul expressed his concerns about this, and pointed out how the bill could also be used for “political” reasons, e.g. the recent case of Gov. Spitzer of New York. He said in part: “Sacrifice of our personal privacy has been ongoing for decades, but has rapidly accelerated since 9/11. Before 9/11 the unstated goal of collecting revenue was the real reason for the erosion of our financial privacy. When nineteen suicidal maniacs attacked us on 9/11, our country became convinced that further sacrifice of personal and financial privacy was required for our security. The driving force behind this ongoing sacrifice of our privacy has been fear and the emotional effect of war rhetoric – war on drugs, war against terrorism, and the war against third world nations in the Middle East who are claimed to be the equivalent to Hitler and Nazi Germany. But the real reason for all this surveillance is to build the power of the state. It arises from a virulent dislike of free people running their own lives and spending their own money. Statists always demand control of the people and their money. … We need no more Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act! No more Violent Radicalization & Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Acts! No more torture! No more Military Commissions Act! No more secret prisons and extraordinary rendition! No more abuse of habeas corpus! No more PATRIOT Acts! What we need is more government transparency and more privacy for the individual.”

Philip Jenkins in an opinion peice in the L.A. Times raised another concern: “Those are a lot of ifs. But anti-government activism may be less worrisome than the means that could be used to combat it. Democratic administrations repeatedly used the paramilitary threat to justify the expansion of law enforcement powers. And today, the government’s long experience of intrusive surveillance powers and questionable interrogation techniques could easily be turned against domestic as well as foreign enemies. Who is prepared to criticize official excesses during a terrorism panic? History may or may not repeat itself following the 2008 election. But we should not be surprised when debates over terrorism and civil liberties start, quite literally, to come home.”

President Bush is a lame duck President, but that still leaves us to wonder with Jeanine Molloff Where Are Clinton And Obama On The “Homegrown Terrorism Act”? As she says: “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963). Never were wiser or more prophetic words spoken. Now in 2008, we are faced with a legislative proposal based on fear, ignorance and the very stupidity spoken of in Dr. King’s warning. That legislative proposal named the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Act of 2007, otherwise known as S.B. 1959, is the companion bill to a previous House version (H.B. 1955), sponsored by Rep. Jane Harman (D-Ca.). S.B. 1959 is now under consideration in the Senate Homeland Security Committee, chaired by Senator Joe Lieberman. This bill is of importance as it deals with the further erosion of our civil liberties during a Presidential election cycle. Ironically, a presidential contender is on the committee; namely Senator Barack Obama. … Using deliberately vague definitions of ‘violence,’ ‘violent radicalization,’ and ‘homegrown terrorism’, this bill provides for the establishment of a McCarthy-esque Committee which would travel the country, holding hearings and conducting investigations for the express purpose of identifying ‘radicals,’ and designating and registering them as ‘homegrown terrorists.’ Once so designated; all the provisions of Patriot I & II, Military Commissions, etc., (including our government’s alleged right to torture ‘enemy combatants),’ could in theory kick into gear. Those unable to establish their ‘patriotic credentials,’ to THE COMMITTEE, would find their lives destroyed , (much like McCarthy’s victims some 50 years ago), all in a stupid, myopic attempt to protect US from THEM. The real agenda is obvious–to silence dissent by interrogating the public and criminalizing those with ‘inquiring minds’ and effective public rhetoric.”

Most of these limitations on our freedoms as Americans including the loss of habeas corpus have come about as a result of the fear arising after 9/11. Americans in general seem to have forgotten the words of Benjamin Franklin – “They that give up essential liberty for temporary safety deserve neither”. I don’t forget these words and have had them framed by my desk since I was in college.

If the neo-con pundits are to be believed, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 because “they hate us for our freedom”, (rather than because of our Foreign Policy as OBL himself says). If that were really the case, we would have nothing more to worry about because we have given up most of our freedoms without a fight. We have allowed them to be taken away from us by political forces within our own country. Because we have allowed ourselves to generalize from a real (and beatable enemy) al Qaeda to a generalized “enemy” (all Muslims – also known as Islamophobia) we have allowed for exceptions to our civil rights that will in the end take away the very freedoms that made this country great.

As an American Muslim who loves both Islam and the United States, I find this particularly tragic.

SEE ALSO our Resource Collection of articles on Civil Rights and the Patriot Act