During the Palmer raids from 1919 to 1921, the U.S. government created 150,000 secret files on Americans it believed held radical views. And in the 1950s it once again trampled all over our civil liberties when the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee ruined the careers of many loyal Americans based purely on their associations. The ACLU fears we are coming dangerously close to reliving these events.
Yesterday the ACLU testified at a subcommittee hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee called "Violent Extremism: How Are People Moved from Constitutionally-Protected Thought to Acts of Terrorism?" The backdrop to the hearing was a bill from the last Congress, which would have established a commission to examine and report on what causes an individual to participate in terrorist action. The ACLU participated in discussions over the bill, but ultimately could not support its adoption because it seemed likely that the commission could be used as a vehicle to paint the Muslim-American community with a broad brush in a negative light. While the ACLU fully supports attempts to find out why people may resort to violence in order to effect change, it was there to remind the subcommittee of the critical importance of protecting our First Amendment rights while doing so. The Constitution guarantees us the right to worship, protest, and assemble without the government watching us, and the ACLU wants to make certain any new commission is keenly aware of that fact.
Some members of Congress have been taking their lead from an unfortunate 2007 report by the New York City Police Department (NYPD) that claimed terrorist activities are directly linked to the adoption of certain beliefs. The report argued that there is a uniform four-step process that ordinary citizens follow on the path to terrorism.
What is dangerous about this analysis is that each of these steps describes a constitutionally-protected action of religion or association. It also fails to acknowledge that millions of Americans go through all or some of these phases without ever turning to terror. A statement submitted for the hearing by the RAND Corporation identifies prayer groups, sports clubs, and charitable organizations as some of the places recruiters are looking for people.
I can't speak for every American, but I know I have been to a sports club and managed to avoid terrorist recruiters. In response to the NYPD report, Kareem W. Shora, the national executive director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said: "The report is at odds with federal law enforcement findings, including those of the recently released National Intelligence Estimate, and uses unfortunate stereotyping of entire communities." Targeting potential terrorists based on their ideological beliefs or interests unfairly casts suspicion on all those that have similar beliefs or interests.
The best way to guard against threats of violence is to focus on acts of violence; not peoples' beliefs. Not all terrorist attacks are even motivated by ideology, and the government's insistence on linking the two may cause us to miss signs of future attacks. The tragic events at Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as the anthrax attacks of 2001 had nothing to do with ideology, and no one would dispute that these were acts of terror.
Our legislators rightfully want to protect the American people. They are looking for anything they can do to stop people from committing acts of violence. We support this effort but caution that they must be conscious that in their zeal to protect American lives, they don't abridge American rights.
You can find the ACLU's written testimony here.