A Commission That Should Cause Concern

Article excerpt


Washington commissions typically elicit little more than a yawn. Their numerous unread reports gather dust on shelves all over the city, from Foggy Bottom to Capitol Hill. So why should we be concerned about legislation, approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in October and now pending in the Senate, to establish a bipartisan "National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism"? Don't we want to prevent these things?

Yes, we do. But we also want to prevent the government from engaging in ideological witch hunts or violating civil liberties, simply on the basis of what people believe.

Under the First Amendment, people enjoy the right to hold extreme beliefs so long as those beliefs are not used to incite unlawful action, or are not demonstrably connected to illegal or harmful action. Unfortunately, the language in the legislation establishing the new commission could jeopardize this right.

The bill defines "violent radicalization" as "the process of adopting or promoting an extremist belief system for the purpose of facilitating ideologically based violence to advance political, religious, or social change." "Homegrown terrorism" is defined as "the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group" in the United States "to intimidate or coerce" the government or civilians to achieve the group's objectives.

The commission would focus on research and data analysis and would have no explicit law enforcement or subpoena power. The commission's tasks would include information gathering, coordinating and facilitating research, and analysis of data and information gathered by local, state, national and foreign governments, nongovernment organizations and academic sources. The bill also calls for establishing a university-based "Center of Excellence" for the study of such threats.

The jihadist terrorism we confront is indeed ideologically based, so better understanding the links between ideology and terrorist acts is a legitimate and important government activity. So why should we be concerned that the legislation threatens civil liberties?

First, because the commission's mandate is not totally clear. While the pending Senate bill (S.1959) would seem to describe the commission's mission with considerable care, it also seemingly gives the proposed commission a blank check to pursue "other purposes." What other purposes? …