New threat to dissent unopposed in Congress

January 11, 2008

A BILL that would criminalize dissent in new and frightening ways is working its way through Congress with virtually no opposition, from Republicans or Democrats.

Last fall, the House of Representatives passed the "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act" by a vote of 404 to 6. The bill is now being considered by a Senate committee.

The act defines "violent radicalization," 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." In other words, the measure takes steps toward criminalizing radical thoughts and beliefs--as opposed to actions.

As the language of the bill makes clear, in addition to "terrorists," the "violent radicalization" label could easily be pinned on the far left.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), "The term ['extremist belief system'] is left undefined and open to many interpretations--socialism, anarchism, communism, nationalism, liberalism, etc.--that would serve to undermine expressions that don't fit within the allowable areas of debate. A direct action led by any group that blocks traffic can be looked upon as being 'coercive.'"

Likewise, the bill defines "homegrown terrorism" as "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."

As a CCR fact sheet asks, "What is force? Is civil disobedience covered under that? If you are arrested at a protest rally and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing governmental administration or even assault, does that now open you up to possible terrorist charges in the future?"

Under such a broad definition, say experts, a wide variety of protests could be considered terrorism--for example, strikes with militant picket lines, or past demonstrations by global justice activists designed to interrupt meetings of the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund.

Among those testifying in support of the bill before Congress was Brian Michael Jenkins, a so-called "counter-terrorism expert" at the right-wing Rand Corp.

According to Jenkins, radical Islamic "terrorists" and leftists are natural allies. "In their international campaign, the jihadists will seek common grounds with leftist, anti-American and anti-globalization forces, who will in turn see, in radical Islam, comrades against a mutual foe," Jenkins wrote in a book on terrorism.

The CCR's Kamau Franklin recently told Inter Press Service that Congress "may want to get this measure passed and signed into law to head off peaceful demonstrations" at the upcoming Republican and Democratic Party conventions."

"And no Congressperson of either political party wants to vote against this bill and get labeled as being soft on terrorism," Franklin added.

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the bill, recently told In These Times that the legislation is meant to target radical Islamists as well as other radicals. "A chief problem is radical forms of Islam, but we're not only studying radical Islam," Harman said.

The bill would also convene a 10-member national commission to study "violent radicalization" and "homegrown terrorism," and direct the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a "center of excellence"--a "university-based research center where academics, policy-makers, members of the private sector and other stakeholders can collaborate to better understand and prevent radicalization and homegrown terrorism," according to In These Times journalist Lindsay Beyerstein.

The bill does include a provision specifying that the DHS "shall not violate the constitutional rights, civil rights or civil liberties of United States citizens or lawful permanent residents."

But under the current bill, the department would be allowed to write its own rules about the protection of civil liberties--hardly a comforting thought.

As Justin Ponkow and Troy Nkrumah of the National Hip Hop Political Convention wrote, "There is no doubt that this bill will have the same results in the Senate, and will be signed by the President. At the speed it is moving, this bill may be a law by February, just in time for the primaries. And all of this is happening with almost nobody noticing. The news outlets are not mentioning it. It is slipping right in under our noses, like most laws of this nature do.

"And chances are, if you were not reading this, you would still think that you had the right to defend yourself against government oppression (as stated in the Declaration of Independence) or at least the right to demonstrate at the next Democratic and Republican national conventions."

Further Reading

From the archives