Bad Ideas

The law promoting outstanding excellence in fighting terrorism—and why you never heard about it.

Rep. Jane Harman

For those well and truly tired of the Bush administration’s proclivity for fighting imaginary problems with real powers (a real invasion to locate pretend nukes in Iraq; a real Guantanamo to warehouse pretend terrorist masterminds), Democratic California Rep. Jane Harman’s new salvo in the war on terror is something of a relief. Even if you’ve never heard of the “Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007,” you’ll be delighted to learn that the legislation has, at least, the virtue of fighting imaginary problems with pretend solutions. After seven long years of government solutions far worse than the problems they purport to cure, perhaps that’s a step in the right direction.

What exactly is “homegrown terrorism,” and how does it differ from its hydroponically raised foreign counterparts? That’s one of the many issues about which Harman’s legislation is blurry. 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.

In other words, it might include radical Islamists, Tim McVeigh, Greenpeace protesters or pro-life groups, or it might just target radical Islamists. Most everyone, including Harman herself, agrees that the United States doesn’t have anything like the problem with indigenous radical Islamist terrorists as exists in, say, England or Germany. So, this law goes after all sorts of radical terrorists in the hopes of deterring them should they become radical Islamist terrorists along the way.

Perhaps because it appears to content itself with merely studying a problem that doesn’t yet exist, the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act has slid under the media radar. The bill passed the House by a massive 404-6 margin and is expected to sail through the homeland security committee of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. The law amends Title VIII of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 to establish a 10-member “National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism,” tasked with centralizing and studying data. After 18 months, that commission will produce a report, then disband and establish a “Center of Excellence for the Study of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States.” The Center for Excellence (not to be confused with Montgomery Burns’ “Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence” award) would then continue to “study the social, criminal, political, psychological, and economic roots of violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism,” presumably until it becomes a problem in America, at which point the center will then work toward eradicating that as well.

Those who have remarked upon the passage of the bill fall into two general categories: folks who claim it does nothing at all, and those who fear it may do something quite terrible. I’m inclined toward a hybrid position, suspecting the law does nothing at all yet symbolizes something quite terrible.

In the former category, Jeff Stein at Congressional Quarterly criticizes the act as a redundant boondoggle: The FBI, the Directorate of National Intelligence, and the New York Police Department have already been studying the issue exhaustively. According to Stein, Congress “could save taxpayers money by sponsoring a field trip to the local Barnes and Noble, whose shelves are groaning with tomes on terrorism.” Lindsay Beyerstein similarly reports for In These Times that the Centers for Excellence would simply be duplicating work already being done at the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and places like the START program at the University of Maryland. With the Congressional Budget Office estimating that the act may cost approximately $22 million over four years, that’s a lot of money spent copying other folks’ homework.

Harman was apparently inspired to act by a foiled 2005 prison-based plot in Los Angeles to attack synagogues during Jewish holidays. But her opening remarks reveal that the government already does a pretty good job of foiling those plots, and she’s after something else entirely.

Look carefully, and you learn that Harman’s real targets aren’t the homegrown plotters so much as their legal Web sites. In her remarks, she thus leads with Samir Khan, the North Carolina blogger whose jihadi Web site showcases Osama Bin Laden’s videos and other anti-American propaganda. Vile, but legal. She moves on to another interrupted plot—by Ahmed Mohamed and Youssef Megahed—but focuses on their YouTube video. She rounds up her case with California native Adam Gadahn’s 45-minute Internet video, called “An Invitation to Islam.”

The name of Harman’s hearing was “Using the Web as a Weapon: The Internet as a Tool for Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism.” And in those same introductory remarks, Harman fretted that Americans in search of radicalization “no longer need to travel to foreign countries or isolated backwoods compounds to become indoctrinated by extremists or learn how to kill their neighbor. On the contrary, the Internet allows them to share violent goals and plot from the comfort of their own living rooms.” Let’s be honest, then. The point of this new legislation isn’t just to interrupt existing homegrown terror plots but to do something about the radical ideas that inspire them. That may be a worthy goal, but it’s assuredly a goal that implicates protected speech.

Careful readers have picked up all of this, and that’s where the second group of critics come in. From Jeralyn Merritt, who called it a “thought crimes bill,” to Ralph E. Shaffer and R. William Robinson, who worry that the commissions are granted wide-ranging authority “to hold hearings, take testimony and administer oaths,” almost all of those who view this new law with genuine fear, as opposed to contempt, focus on the bill’s overbroad definitions. “Homegrown terrorism” and “violent radicalization,” as defined here, may encompass thoughts, ideas, and plans, not just acts or conduct. This is an attempt to get at radical ideas.

I am not yet willing to panic about Harman’s “thought crimes” bill, because as drafted, it does no more than explore whether those thought crimes are a problem. It doesn’t create new crimes, although that is presumably the next step. I don’t much care for the idea of roving commissions with subpoena power skipping around the country trying to stamp out “radical” ideas on the Internet. But as expensive threats to free speech go, I’ll take a time-limited commission over a bill that criminalizes speech. Maybe I’m being shortsighted, but then the Democrats in Congress have taught me to keep my expectations very low. Today, therefore, I am profoundly grateful that instead of criminalizing protected speech outright, Democrats merely form a commission that will do a study, which will in turn christen a Drive-Thru Center for Excellence, where they will someday consider criminalizing protected free speech.