January 30, 2008
By BOB BARR
Never content to rely on the Good Lord to deliver us from those things that might do us harm, one Congress after another — going back at least to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — has considered legislation or held hearings to highlight perceived threats and to then limit individual freedom to battle things that might bump us in the night.
Members of today’s younger generation (I can’t keep them straight — are they Generation X, Y, Z or the “Millennial Generation”?) clearly have no personal memory, and almost as little historical knowledge, of the “Red scare” of the 1940s and 1950s, or of the House Un-American Activities Committee that was the weapon of choice for official witch hunts. However, things have come full circle.
If California Rep. Jane Harman (D), Maine Sen. Susan Collins (R) and many of their colleagues on both sides of the political aisle have their way, President Bush may soon be able to sign into law an act that will create a new, 21st-century version of HUAC — the National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism.
And what would this latest “national commission” — the enabling legislation for which passed the House with but cursory discussion and only six dissenting votes last Oct. 23 — do? According to the platitudes of those arguing its adoption, it would figure mightily in protecting our nation against this century’s “Red scare” — terrorism.
How would this commission (and the other mechanisms provided for in the legislation) protect us from terrorists in ways that the billions of dollars and tens of thousands of personnel currently being devoted to this effort are unable to accomplish? The legislation would write into federal law three new concepts: “violent radicalization,” “homegrown terrorism” and “ideologically based violence.” Any person or organization that might have even contemplated the use of “violence” (not itself a defined term in the legislation) ought to be genuinely frightened of this language. Any “extremist belief system” (not further defined) that might facilitate “ideologically based violence” would be a targetable activity for the commission.
Alleged Communist-front organizations were the prime targets of the HUAC back in 1947, when no less a luminary than then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan, was forced to testify on possible Communist sympathizers lurking within the film industry’s shadows. Whether disfavored filmmakers now would be among the targets remains to be seen. However, anti-war groups, anti-abortion organizations and myriad other entities easily could find themselves on the receiving end of an allegation of “homegrown terrorism.”
Although the Bush administration has not thus far openly embraced the legislation, it doesn’t have to. The enthusiasm with which this administration has supported all things that even hint at increased government power to discover, investigate and prosecute the broadest conceivable universe of those labeled “terrorists” is well-known. Secret watch lists routinely are employed to identify those on whom limits must be placed; surveillance of all international communications is now the norm; those labeled “enemies” are subject to indefinite detention; and a national identification card is being implemented. A national commission to offer an added degree of respectability to this scare obviously would meet with a presidential signature if passed by the Senate.
That a Martin Luther King Jr. easily could have been — indeed almost certainly would have been — swept within the absurdly broad definitions in the homegrown terrorism act apparently matters little to the hundreds of Democrat and Republican House members who blithely voted “aye.” Unfortunately, in the climate of fear that continues to color the political landscape, there is much greater interest in finding ways for increasing the power of the federal government to manage the economy than there is interest in limiting the erosion of our civil liberties by that same government.
— Former congressman and U.S. Attorney Bob Barr practices law in Atlanta. Web site: http://www.bobbarr.org.
More information on HR 1955 and S 1959