Radically Wrong: A Counterproductive Approach to Counterterrorism

Governments often interpret radical ideas that challenge the existing social and political orthodoxy as threatening, which is why they often attempt to suppress them. Our country's founders recognized that ideas considered radical – like their own ideas about self-governance – were necessary for social progress and essential to a vibrant democracy, so they sought to protect them with the First Amendment.

Unfortunately we haven't always lived up to this standard, particularly in times of real or perceived national crisis. During the First World War, for example, Congress banned anti-war speech and unleashed the FBI to conduct investigations of Americans' political beliefs. Congress and state legislatures held hearings to examine American radicals – who they defined as pacifists, socialists, labor organizers and the organizations that defended their rights, like the National Civil Liberties Bureau, the precursor organization to the American Civil Liberties Union. So we at the ACLU tend to get concerned when our government identifies "radicalization" as a threat that has to be countered, because we know that while promoted as an effort to protect security, such instances too often turn into efforts to suppress belief, speech and association.

Unfortunately, after 9/11, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have again identified "radicalization" as a problem that must be addressed, by promoting a flawed theory that adopting radical ideas is a dangerous first step toward committing terrorist acts. Countering terrorism, the thinking goes, begins with countering radicalization. Based on this discredited model, intelligence and law enforcement agencies implemented flawed and wasteful "preventive" policies that result in discrimination, suspicionless surveillance of entire communities, and selective law enforcement against belief communities and political activists.

Congress has sought to entrench the theory with a series of hearings and reports, and has demanded the government establish a "counter-radicalization policy." We raised concerns when Congress attempted to establish a commission to study radicalization in 2007, and again in 2011. We submitted statements to Congress in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012, and we worked with coalition partners to point out the factual and methodological flaws in reports that promote this dangerous theory, as have other allies. Rather than challenge the radicalization theory with the many studies that refute it, the Obama administration issued a plan for preventing violent extremism. While the White House deserves some credit for using more careful language and for emphasizing the need for community engagement, it perpetuates the notion that "radicalization to violence" is a discernible process that government can identify, predict and interdict, and establishes policies that again threaten civil liberties.

Now, policy makers are again raising radicalization as a hot topic that must be addressed, as we've written about here and here. Over the next several days we will publish a series of blogs that update our concerns with these renewed efforts to establish counter-radicalization as official U.S. policy – and lay out the civil liberties implications that follow. The blogs will examine the White House's new plan for countering "online radicalization to violence," the FBI's abuse of community outreach programs for intelligence gathering, and more. Stay tuned.

Previous posts in the "Radically Wrong" series:

Part 2: Misstated Threats - Terrorism isn't an American-Muslim Problem

Part 3: The Right to Think Dangerous Thoughts

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Paen

Once upon a time ideas like letting women vote or abolishing slavery were considered to be radical.

Anonymous

Webster's Dictionary defines radical as:

"a) Marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional: Extreme. b) Tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions".

By that definition:

A) The US Constitution was itself drafted based on radical changes and views, with good and important reason, considering the oppression that pre-existed its inception
B) The current post-9-11-01 political climate, as coached and dictated by the Feds, is itself radical.

The public needs to be coached to think about it. And this is where the ACLU needs to do a LOT more outreach! Blogs, letters to the editor, by ACLU membership? What is missing in this picture?

Mruna

Suppression of beliefs leads to struggle for freedom to believe. And history does not indicate freedom being earned without a struggle for it, peacefully or not. Could suicides, individual acts of public violence including ‘homegrown terrorism’ be a result of extreme suppression and surveillance for prolonged periods of time ? Could all that is needed to reduce these violent acts is to not slyly take away the freedom that one ought to have ? Should a terroristic act somewhere lead to surveillance policies that could and have been creating more destructive acts? Treating a radical thinking person like a terrorist is negative reinforcement that could encourage them to be the one they are treated like.

Mruna

Suppression of beliefs leads to struggle for freedom to believe. And history does not indicate freedom being earned without a struggle for it, peacefully or not. Could suicides, individual acts of public violence including ‘homegrown terrorism’ be a result of extreme suppression and surveillance for prolonged periods of time ? Could all that is needed to reduce these violent acts is to not slyly take away the freedom that one ought to have ? Should one terroristic act lead to surveillance policies that could and have been creating more destructive acts? Treating a radical thinking person like a terrorist is negative reinforcement that could encourage them to be the one they are treated like.

Anonymous

Well, I don't see how it's NOT a first step in a thought of wanting to KILL people and wanting to murder someone b/c they're an infidel is not even reMOTELY like "letting women vote" (who's going to DIE from letting a woman vote?) and "abolishing slavery" (who's going to die if you abolish slavery?)

But thinking people deserve to die b/c they're infidels (well who could possibly die from THAT thought?)
Well I guess NObody, except almost 3,000 people including someone in my family.
Osama bin Laden SAID that was one of the reasons he did it. Right before saying "I'm a deeply religious person." Like some damn big DOPE. He also said "Everyone who worked in those towers was greedy with money and deserved to die."
Like he fuckin' knew it was every little last person, like he's some gd mindreader, and he was wrong about Eric B. and Tom McGinnis anyway. Those are the only two I knew or knew OF. A friend worked there who lived through it. He received severe burns over his upper body. Sixty-nine of his colleagues died. He named several MORE people who WEREN'T like that but I don't recall the others' names. I only recall Tom McGinnis b/c that was his best friend and Tom wasn't even supposed to be in Tower 1; he was there for one of those stupid meetings corporate America believes it can't do without. He really worked in Tower 6 and was there for the meeting they were having to discuss cuts in their staff.
My friend also mentioned a woman who was pregnant with her first child who worked there with her husband. All three of them; husband, wife and unborn child; died.

I fail to see how thoughts of killing someone doesn't lead to the action of killing someone but what the hell. I'm only a relative of a murder victim. I'm probably incapable of understanding it. But not intellectually speaking and I still don't see how thinking of it, training to do it and actually doing it are NOT a progression of thoughts that lead to action.

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