Should We Freak Out About H.R. 1955?

One of the more disturbing bits of news to hit headlines today was that back in October, the House of Representatives passed a bit of legislation entitled Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, H.R. 1955. Reading quick synopses and evaluations of this bill, one might think that Orwell’s 1984 really is at last upon us. Public criticism seems to focus on how this legislation opens the door to “thought-crime” punishment, how we are all off to the gulags, now. Carefully reading through the bill, however, does not support these outraged assertions. Still, it’s not a far leap to reach some fairly disturbing conclusions.

Starting with Sec. 899A

“Definitions”, we are struck by the following:

2) VIOLENT RADICALIZATION- The term `violent radicalization’ 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.

`(3) HOMEGROWN TERRORISM- The term `homegrown terrorism’ means 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.

`(4) IDEOLOGICALLY BASED VIOLENCE- The term `ideologically based violence’ means 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.

OK, violence is not the answer, kids, and at least most of us know that and are not inclined to turn our frustration into Molotov cocktails. What is disturbing here, as with much of the more controversial legislation passed under our current administration, is the vagary employed in what is supposed to be a “definition”. Giving our representatives the benefit of the doubt, they may well have believed that limiting the scope of their proposed exploration to “planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence” was a very straightforward thing. Unfortunately, due to the public’s knowledge that even the Quakers are threatening to this administration, the “planned use” bit gets a little bit sketchy. What, precisely, counts as “planning”? If I sit around in a coffee shop, spouting my frustration and fury with the government, and then state that all the bastards need to be up against the wall…am I engaging in violent radicalization? What if I do it on open mic night? Yes, it’s paranoid, but it’s also a reasonable question to ask when confronted with a steadily growing set of laws in my country which discourage opposition and leave sizable gaps in what we once thought were our civil liberties.

Sec. 899B

“Findings”, has something a little more inarguable, however:

`(3) The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.

This is lumped in with a lot of generalities, such as (2) The promotion of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence exists in the United States and poses a threat to homeland security. Out of the whole list of nine “Findings”, this appears to be the only specific direction, almost as if the House is saying “The Internet’s the real problem…all those scary ideas going all over the place with no controls whatsoever!”. Maybe they’re thinking China has the right idea, no matter how that is currently working out for China. Let’s be honest, here. There are a lot of crazy-ass ideas on the Internet. But is exposure to ideas really the problem? Or is it more of a problem that we have a society where people are so unhappy that the possibility of exposure to a radical idea is enough to make our lawmakers afraid that we will start randomly blowing up government buildings?

Also under findings, we have this:

6) Preventing the potential rise of self radicalized, unaffiliated terrorists domestically cannot be easily accomplished solely through traditional Federal intelligence or law enforcement efforts, and can benefit from the incorporation of State and local efforts.

Which leads to the unassailable conclusion that clearly some new and interesting efforts are being considered in order to quell the dangerous spread of ideas.

Sec. 899C

goes on to establish a commission to:

Examine and report upon the facts and causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence in the United States, including United States connections to non-United States persons and networks, violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence in prison, individual or `lone wolf’ violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence, and other faces of the phenomena of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence that the Commission considers important.

So, OK, they want to examine how we can have people in our own borders who want to hurt others in order to bring folks around to their point of view. Sure, you may as well. It’s not like they haven’t always been there, but I am all for getting down to the reasons why some people blow up schools while others just think about it. This section also states the need to bring together research from various locations in order to have it looked at as a whole. Again, that seems sensible. What is really freaky, though, is

Sec. 899C (i)

“Powers of the Commission”, which lists:

(A) HEARINGS AND EVIDENCE- The Commission or, on the authority of the Commission, any subcommittee or member thereof, may, for the purpose of carrying out this section, hold hearings and sit and act at such times and places, take such testimony, receive such evidence, and administer such oaths as the Commission considers advisable to carry out its duties.

Um…hearings? As in McCarthy-era hearings? Or are we just talking about the head of some psychology department at a prestigious university? Testimony, evidence, and oaths sort of makes it sound like the former. And whatever the House was thinking when they wrote it, there is a world of leeway left here. It’s pretty much “do what you need to do to get the information”, and that is simply not acceptable. Everything else in this section supports that general directive. The commission may hold public hearings, whenever they feel it is appropriate. The information garnered will be protected in accordance with law, or Executive Order. During this process, and at the end, the committee is to submit reports of their findings, a version of which will be submitted to the public.

In short, they can, under this bill, haul anyone up before the commission to be interrogated on whatever suits their fancy, and we will probably never know what it was.

So, should we be freaking out?

This bill by itself does not outlaw anything, and does not provide any agency with new punitive powers. It does, however, lay out the foundation stones for a heightened paranoia and potentially a 21st century version of the Salem Witch Trials. H.R. 1955 still has to get through the Senate, and even if it does get passed into law that does not mean that we will be asked to show up and report on our radical ideas…but the very fact that it creates the possibility is disturbing. It’s a little early to freak out, but it is definitely time to call your Senator, just so they know that we are watching them, too.