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Monday, December 24, 2007

The Peculiar Inegmatic H.R. 1955

I have only recently been made aware of this bill and for now I will reserve judgement besides the observation that it is peculiar and enigmatic. It is called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 and it is sponsored and promoted almost exclusively by Democrats led by Jane Harmon. Thus, not surprisingly, this has made it the target of conservative pundits.

Thus, Orwell says, we end up with political language that consists "largely of euphemism ... and sheer cloudy vagueness."That's how we end up with terms like "surge" for escalation, or "enhanced interrogation techniques" for torture.The language of H.R. 1955, The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown TerrorismPrevention Act, which passed the House on Oct. 23 and is now in committee in the Senate, has that Orwellian quality of sheer cloudy vagueness, and as such lends itself to the potential for 1984-ish Thought Police in the form of a committee.

I have personal experience with the dangerous and corrosive effect of vague legislation in my business, mortgages. Thus, my radar is up to the potential dangers pointed out in this column.It is also being challenged on civil liberties grounds.

Many scholars, historians and civil liberties experts say they fear that the proposed bill will set the stage for future criminal legislation that be used against U.S.-based groups engaged in legal but unpopular political activism, ranging from political Islamists to animal-rights and environmental campaigners to radical right-wing organizations."

This bill fits the pattern we are seeing coming out of Congress - both Republican and Democratic - of a continued campaign of fear, which gets into heads of Americans that we now need to start criminalizing ideology," said Alejandro Queral, executive director of the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center. H said he is very concerned about the bill's vague definitions of "violent radicalization," "homegrown terrorism," and the terms within the definitions including "extremist belief system," "violence" and "force."

"What is an extremist belief system? Who defines this?" Queral questioned. "Planes flying into the World Trade Center is an extremist belief, but are anti-abortion activists extremists? Are individuals who liberate mink extremists? These are broad definitions that encompass so much, which need to rather be very narrowly tailored. It is criminalizing thought and ideology, rather than criminal activity."

I think the vague definitions that this bill appears to have lends itself to potential abuses of civil liberties. The bill is certainly well intentioned. Home grown terrorists are a big and bigger problem. That said, it doesn't seem to me to be something that can be legislated. This seems to be a priority law enforcement, intelligence, and homeland security matter. I don't think you can legislate tougher measures against homegrown terrorists. That happens when departments apply more pressure, more focus, and more resources to the matter.Finally, from scanning the bill, I have found one other big potential problem. Here is the full text of the bill. Here is the part that concerns me.

The Secretary of Homeland Security shall establish or designate a university-based Center of Excellence for the Study of Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism in the United States (hereinafter referred to as `Center') following the merit-review processes and procedures and other limitations that have been previously established for selecting and supporting University Programs Centers of Excellence. The Center shall assist Federal, State, local and tribal homeland security officials through training, education, and research in preventing radicalization and homegrown terrorism in the United States. In carrying out this section, the Secretary may choose to either create a new Center designed exclusively for the purpose stated herein or identify and expand an existing Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence so that a working group is exclusively designated within the existing Center of Excellence to achieve the purpose set forth in subsection...

Invariably, whenever Congress identifies a problem they want to study it. Invariably, this group turns into nothing more than an added layer to the bureaucracy that comes to the federal government for money, my money and every other tax payer's money. I have already pointed out the huge potential problem of the added bureaucracy of the SAVE Act. Yet again, Congress has created a bill that will ultimately add to the size of government.

I am not against studying homegrown terrorists, however there are two things that I see to be problematic here. The first is that it is best studied through field work. In other words, the FBI agents, secret service, and police that are out on the street battling homegrown terrorist are in effect engaged in the study of homegrown terrorists. This isn't the sort of thing that academics studying theory would contribute in any reasonable way. We don't need Congress to act to do this. Hopefully, it is already happening. Second, I don't think my tax dollars should go to such theoretical research. If someone wants to fund a university to study homegrown terrorists, let them but it shouldn't be my money.

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