Thursday, April 16, 2009

Government Sets Sights on Extremists

        Hot Air Leads to Violence?  Homeland Security apparently thinks so.  The Department of Homeland Security recently warned law enforcement that disenchanted, angry Americans are like kernels of corn under heat, ready to pop at any time.  Both threats and instances of Right-wing violence has definitely increased in response to the election of Barack Obama, but Homeland Security's report is off the mark.  It targets "extremist thought" as the problem.  When government conflates ideology with violent action, all free speech - whether from the Left or Right - is at risk.  We need to build a progressive movement that channels peoples' anger to challenge the causes of social injustices, while exposing the rightwing's false populism.  Supporting surveillance of right-wing groups only gives government license to repress the Left, as well.

        Homeland Security's recent report simplistically conflates ill-defined “extremist” viewpoints with violent criminal activity.  It is completely insensitive to free speech guarantees.  The government urges law enforcement to exercise “intense scrutiny” of groups espousing many different agendas.  Tax protestors, anti-immigrant activists, white supremacists, militias, and “One World Government Extremists” all garner suspicion. 

(you can download a copy of the report here)

        Urging police to study and observe people based on their beliefs chills everyone’s freedom of speech and association.  Under the U.S. Constitution, people are free to espouse any  beliefs and recruit people to organize, short of threatening imminent acts of violence.  (See, e.g., Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969))  This strategy targets the beliefs and ideological motivations of mobilized citizens, rather than suspected criminal activity.  “Threats from white supremacist and violent antigovernment groups during 2009 have been largely rhetorical and have not indicated plans to carry out violent acts,” says the Homeland Security report, making it clear that what is being targeted here is speech.

        It would be a mistake for critics to think that the Obama administration is singling out the Right.  For the past eight years, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, FBI, and other agencies have been intimidating and spying on anti-war, globalization, and environmental activists.  There is no evidence of a sea change under Obama, the domestic security apparatus continues to do so.  For example, in January 2009, Homeland Security warned “Leftwing Extremists Likely to Increase Use of Cyber Attacks over the Coming Decade.”  That report defined "leftwing extremists" as groups or individuals who embrace radical elements of the anarchist, animal rights, or environmental movements and are often willing to violate the law to achieve their objectives. It lumped together the Ruckus Society and Recreate 68 with the Animal Defense League, Earth First!, and other groups whose activities have never been linked to a single attack on human life.   Andrea Tantaros at the FOX Forum blog asked,  

where was the DHS when Code Pink was trying to handcuff former administration officials or when leftist groups like ACORN were slashing tires, intimidating voters and vandalizing campaign headquarters (not to mention bullying banks to give bad loans to people who couldn’t afford them)?

Homeland Security was right where you would expect them to be.  Denver Police slammed a Code Pink activist to the ground at a DNC protest this Summer.  Police and federal agents raided the residences of RNC protestors before any protests took place at the Republican Convention in St. Paul.   It is good news that some on the Right are waking up to the fact that the "war on terror" is being manipulated to justify infringements on civil liberties.  Unfortunately, this newfound concern appears to have less to do with commitment to defend the civil and political rights of all U.S. residents, than with concern that right-wing causes might be repressed under the current administration.  Let not progressives follow the same unprincipled and short-sighted path.  However tempting it may be to compromise principles for political advantage, we should remember how infrequently it is we live under a federal administration not overtly hostile to the Left.  To celebrate DHS' new concern about the right is to revel in historical amnesia.

        Homeland Security’s warning not only threatens civil liberties, but it's also bad counter-terrorism.  The report singles out “a parent’s unemployment” as a possible marker for “the formation of right wing extremist beliefs.”  Given the explosion in the ranks of the unemployed, how is this possibly an effective strategy for preventing terrorism?   

        This is a futile and wasteful approach to policing terrorism.  When police make decisions about resources and staffing, they should not focus on the distant causes of terrorism, such as family upbringing or the content of literature.  Police should focus on operational factors such as targets, weapons, tools, and facilitating conditions – all of which are accessible to intervention – in order to limit opportunities for terrorist action and planning.  Homeland Security’s emphasis on the intricacies of “extremist” ideology takes resources away from what really counts and casts too many under suspicion of terrorism.  The Obama Administration has abandoned use of the phrase "war on terror."  That is a good start, but substance is what matters most.  They must now abandon the domestic "war on terror" ideology of "violent radicalization" that, like earlier repressive witch hunts, violate our rights with the promise of protecting them.

Special thanks to Tarso Ramos of Political Research Associates for his assistance on this blog entry!

"Our freedom of speech is freedom or death

We go to fight the powers that be."

                  - Public Enemy, "Fight the Power