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Don't Even Think About It

The war against "homegrown terrorism" is on. Enter the thought police.

| Wed Jan. 23, 2008 4:00 AM EST

Perhaps no campaign tactic is more effective than fearmongering, and in the current presidential race the sum of all fears, once again, is radical Islamic terrorists—or "jihadists," to use the now-ubiquitous term. On the Republican side, it's a pissing match over who can look toughest against this shadowy enemy, with John McCain running ads showing masked Islamic gunmen, while Mitt Romney spouts the old neocon warning about forces that want to "unite the world under a single jihadist caliphate." Although the Democrats' rhetoric is more restrained, Hillary Clinton didn't hesitate to suggest that the new president might quickly face another terrorist attack on American soil, as part of her quest to convince voters they need her cool-headed experience.

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Largely ignored by the mainstream candidates—as well as the mainstream media—are the latest efforts to bring the fear home by targeting "homegrown terrorism"—another new catchphrase. Only liberal Democrat Dennis Kucinich and libertarian Republican Ron Paul have warned that in the name of stopping domestic terrorist plots before they happen, Congress is in the midst of passing legislation aimed not at actual hate crimes or even terrorist conspiracies, but at talking, Web surfing, or even thinking about jihadism or other "extremist belief systems." Last October, a piece of legislation called the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 sailed through the House with near-universal bipartisan support; it is likely to reach the floor of the Senate early this year and appears certain to be signed into law.

Meanwhile, a report released by the New York City Police Department's intelligence division has been warmly received in Washington and widely distributed to law enforcement officials and seems sure to influence national policy. "Radicalization in the West and the Homegrown Threat" details how not only committed terrorists but potential jihadists think, what they talk about, and where they meet. The report's apparent goal is to increase surveillance on constitutionally protected activities. Already, members of the New York City Fire Department have been enlisted by Homeland Security to be on the lookout for signs of possible terrorist activity whenever they enter people's homes and to share this "intelligence" with other agencies.

Both the legislation and the report are presented as reasonable, rational responses to the threat of terrorism from domestic "extremist" groups and are framed not as plans for action but as efforts to "study" and "understand" the roots of homegrown terrorism. Both promote precisely the kind of broad approach—targeting beliefs rather than actions, assuming that "radicalization" leads to violence, defining terms loosely and casting a wide net—that has been used in the past by government authorities to monitor and disrupt legitimate dissent as well as illegal plots.

The primary sponsor of the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act is Jane Harman, chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security's Subcommittee on Intelligence. Harman made a point of introducing the legislation on April 19, the 12th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, saying it was "aimed at ensuring such an attack never happens again." But it was clear from the start that the bill was not aimed at white supremacists or anti-government militias. In announcing the bill, Harman also cited a 2005 plot in her Southern California district, targeting "military bases and recruiting stations, the Israeli Consulate, synagogues filled with worshipers on Jewish holy days, and the El Al ticket counter at LAX"—a plot that was foiled when a local police detective spotted "jihadist extremist material" in the apartment of a robbery suspect.

The danger posed by American jihadists remains relatively small—both in comparison to domestic threats in Europe and to the threat of attacks on the United States from abroad. The latest National Intelligence Estimate on "The Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland," released in July 2007, clearly stated that Al Qaeda "is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat" to the United States. In fact, the report found that "the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability" from its safe haven in Pakistan, and that the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq has helped it raise resources and "recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks." Far down in its threat assessment, the NIE notes that "the radical and violent segment of the West's Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States," but also finds that "this internal Muslim terrorist threat is not likely to be as severe as it is in Europe."

Nonetheless, a few thwarted conspiracies are more than enough to float a bill like this. After a couple of hearings—described by OMB Watch as "primarily one-sided, with the bulk of the witnesses representing law enforcement or federal agencies"—the bill went to the House floor, where it was it passed with only six members voting against it—three Democrats and three Republicans. (Twenty-two others were absent.) Currently, a nearly identical version of the bill awaits a vote in the Senate's Committee on Homeland Security, where it has a supporter in chair Joseph Lieberman. Committee member Barack Obama has gone on record as being undecided on the bill (after an earlier email to constituents that seemed to indicate support)—but no presidential candidate is likely to cast a vote that could be seen as soft on terrorism.

The legislation would create a National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism composed of 10 members whose vaguely defined job would be to "examine and report upon the facts and causes of violent radicalization, homegrown terrorism, and ideologically based violence," and to "build upon and bring together the work of other entities" including various federal, state, and local agencies, academics, and foreign governments. The commission is charged with issuing a report after 18 months. It also directs the Secretary of Homeland Security to set up a center to study "violent radicalization and homegrown terrorism" at a U.S. university, and to "conduct a survey" of what other countries are doing to prevent homegrown terrorism.

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