House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN on Sunday that last weekend’s massacre at a Buffalo supermarket, allegedly perpetrated by an overt white supremacist, was “domestic terrorism.”
Payton Gendron’s suspected manifesto appears to show that he did hope to inflict terror on the Black community. His goals were political, making “terrorism” seem to be an appropriate label for his actions.
But if the two decades since 9/11 should have taught us anything, it’s that the government can and will use fears of “terrorism” to surveil, prosecute, and harass any number of people and communities—especially racial and religious minorities—no matter how specious their ties to terrorism actually are, wrote Lucy Steigerwald for The Daily Beast.
Nevertheless, Pelosi and other Democrats continue to push the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (HR 350). This bill would add new offices and funding to the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and Department of Justice. Most concerning is the enhancement in “information sharing” between the offices and state and local law enforcement.
Vast surveillance dragnets already catch up the data of millions of Americans. Federal agencies—from the FBI to the NSA to ICE—have nearly unfettered access to data revealing the movements and faces of practically everyone in this country.
Supposedly tailored restrictions, such as the No-Fly List, are still too vast to catch dangerous people, not to mention the fact that they frequently place completely innocent people under government suspicion. And it’s still nearly impossible to challenge the list of scores of thousands of names of people whose right to travel in US airspace is gone without trial or even being informed.
The Patriot Act made it easier to spy on and harass countless innocent Muslims, particularly in New York City.
And though racial and religious minorities will suffer the most under the weight of any new “domestic terror” law, political radicals and “extremists” (i.e., people with unpopular politics) should not be forgotten. Plenty of groups that you may not like or entirely condone are not necessarily terrorists, but they are called potentially violent and dangerous by the federal government.
In 2005, the FBI dubbed environmentalists the most dangerous domestic threat. You don’t have to agree with—or want to decriminalize all of their activities (usually trespassing, theft, and property damage)—to realize this is absurd. The FBI considers Juggalos, those enthusiastic fans of the band Insane Clown Posse, to be a gang threat. An 18-year-old rapper was nearly charged with terrorism in the wake of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Another rapper was charged with terrorism for anti-police lyrics.
The FBI even labeled Black Lives Matter a “Black Identity Extremism movement” to justify its secret surveillance program targeting the movement.
The overbroad labeling of “suspected terrorists” or people suspected of “ties to terrorism” went into hyperdrive after 9/11, but its roots stretch back a few years earlier.
After a white supremacist bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, then-President Bill Clinton pushed through the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). This was the proto-Patriot Act, increasing the government’s investigation and surveillance scope. It also damaged the constitutional habeas corpus rights of prisoners, meaning that innocent people (or those who had a lousy defense at trial) had fewer opportunities to challenge their status.
John Oliver cited the AEDPA in a March 2022 episode of Last Week Tonight on wrongful imprisonment and the impending execution (currently stayed) of Melissa Lucio, who many advocates believe to be innocent of killing her daughter. She’s not exactly Timothy McVeigh, but she is exactly the kind of person who is swept up in the dragnet of “good” legislation passed by politicians desperate to show they are “doing something” in the wake of a tragedy.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has repeatedly stressed that the AEDPA was fatally flawed legislation. And there are so many more where that came from. “We can’t prosecute our way out of racism,” as ACLU National Security Project director Hina Shamsi said on a post-Jan. 6 ACLU podcast.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol fueled calls for new anti-terror legislation.
But it was Democratic “Squad” members—including Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the lone dissenting vote in 2001 against authorizing the war in Afghanistan, Barbara Lee—who penned a letter to Nancy Pelosi and other House leaders on Jan. 9 warning against the impulse to fight “domestic terror” with sweeping new law enforcement powers.
In their letter, the members cited the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC), the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the Patriot Act, and recent actions against Black Lives Matter activists as concrete examples of “patriotic” law enforcement run amok. “[W]e have been here before, and we know where that road leads,” the letter read, noting that government actions taken against truly violent threats are just a fraction of those taken against a whole bunch of regular people.
The questions after Buffalo are myriad. How do you stop a massacre before it happens? How do you reach disaffected young men before they’re radicalized into racism, extremism, and violence? Can the media even report on these tragedies without helping to fuel the next one?
But there are other questions that need to be answered by those begging for new domestic terror laws: Why would these new powers be the ones that succeed in tamping out extremism, even after all the others have failed? How many innocents need to be ensnared before the cost of stopping one potential terrorist is too high? And why should we trust the government, which has abused its own power so many times in recent history, to not abuse new powers?
The atrocity in Buffalo was meant to terrorize. We need to remember not to be so frightened that we bet the civil liberties of the marginalized on the vain hope that the only way to stop the next bad guy is more intrusive tactics, and less accountable law enforcement agencies.
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