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When Do We Arrest the Tea Party?


Murray Rothbard once spoke fondly of the 19th-century New York politician William M. (“Boss”) Tweed who was notoriously corrupt. Why? Because Tweed operated before the days of Public Relations, in the days when a crook was a crook and he didn’t pretend to pick your pocket “for your own good”; he did it for the money or the power. Tweed, as Murray said of him in chortling admiration, was a real crook — “a crook’s crook.”

The latest anti-terrorism document to issue from the White House is entitled “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States” (“Empowering”); as the title suggests, it addresses domestic terrorism. Published in early August, “Empowering” is a blatant expansion of state power not only into the lives but also into the minds of American communities and families. But the agenda is carefully presented in politically correct language and vague bureaucratese. In short, Boss Obama’s team has coated “Empowering” with such a thick patina of PR that few people are reacting to anything else.

In an article entitled “Defeating Islamic Terrorism through Appeasement”, the Conservative FrontPage Magazine declared the message of the “mostly redundant” eight-page document to be “Collaborate!” Those with whom the article stated the document proposes to collaborate are the Muslim communities to which “Empowering” suggests outreach as a means of preventing terrorism. In an article entitled “New White House Extremism Report Sober, Tepid,” the Huffington Post stated of the document, “It is broad, sober, careful not to assign blame to any particular community, and fairly uninspiring.”

Had they read the same document I had? Immediately beneath the PR patina is an agenda for naked state expansion. Specifically, it is an ambitious pre-crime agenda that aims to nip in the bud radical ideologies that are said to inspire violence; and it encourages ideologies of which the government approves through the largely undefined involvement of largely unnamed federal agencies. One thing is crystal clear, however: the White House has declared war on the wrong ideas with the goal of preventing people from becoming too radical.

The Introductory page, signed “Barack Obama”, states, “As a government we are working to prevent all types of extremism that leads to violence no matter who inspires it…. The strategy that follows outlines how the Federal Government will support and help American communities and their local partners in their grassroots efforts to prevent violent extremism. This strategy commits the Federal Government to improving support to communities, including sharing more information about the threat of radicalization….”

The document defines “extremists” in such a manner as to include half the Founding Fathers and anyone who believes in resisting tyranny. The definition of “extremists” offered is, “individuals who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals.” Note that merely supporting “ideologically-motivated violence” makes a person an extremist; presumably that includes those who express approval of the ideologies, whether or not they take violent action.

Al-Qaeda is identified as the key ideological threat, with passing mention of neo-Nazis, anti-Semitic groups, and a broad unspecified “range of ideologies” that promote radicalization. Thus, al-Qaeda would seem to be the focus. Nevertheless, “Empowering” carefully states, “Any solution that focuses on a single, current form of violent extremism, without regard to other threats, will fail to secure our country and communities. Our threat environment is constantly evolving, which is why we must consistently [sic] revisit our priorities and ensure our domestic approach can address multiple types of violent extremism.” In other words, who or what is defined as an ideology of “violent extremism” tomorrow is open-ended. Given that Tea Party congressmen were recently called “terrorists” by powerful Democrats simply because they refused to pass a debt-ceiling bill, this definitional blank check is disquieting.

Equally disturbing are earlier attempts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to identify extremists. In 2009, DHS issued a nine-page report entitled “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.” The document stated, “Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented … and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” Veterans were also included as extremist threats.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano stood by the report, even though it was later retracted because of the considerable controversy it stirred. Perhaps “Empowering” has learned a lesson from the earlier report. Steeped in vague and sometimes impenetrable language, “Empowering” has stirred little backlash. And, yet, its language could easily include everyone mentioned in the earlier explosive report. For example, “Empowering” states, “There is no single issue or grievance that pushes individuals toward supporting or committing violence, and the path to violent extremism can vary considerably.” Presumably that path includes political issues such as Second-Amendment or pro-life absolutism.

As it speaks of “grievances,” “Empowering” once again explicitly attacks those involved in the “diffusion of ideologies and narratives that feed on grievances, assign blame, and legitimize the use of violence against those deemed responsible.” Again, it seems as though writers and advocates of improper ideologies or grievances would be targeted.

Targeted how? Predictably, “Empowering” is unclear. On the one hand, there is a great deal of “disclaimer language” in which freedom of speech is saluted as the American way. On the other hand, it decries, “al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents … openly and specifically inciting Americans to support or commit acts of violence— through videos, magazines, and online forums” [emphasis added]. Moreover, several times “Empowering” mentions a role for “law enforcement” in the prevention of radicalization; for example, “Law enforcement plays an essential role in keeping us safe, but so too does [sic] engagement and partnership with communities.” And, yet, nowhere does the document advocate arresting or otherwise punishing those who merely hold or express wrong ideas.

What, then, is the mechanism “Empowering” advocates to prevent radicalizing ideologies? The document rejects the creation of “a new architecture of institutions and funding.” Instead, it stresses the need to employ “successful models, increasing their scope and scale where appropriate.” In more concrete terms (or as concrete as it gets), that involves the coordination of existing federal agencies and resources to expand the federal government’s relationships with grassroots groups and the private sector down to the family level. Those at “ground level,” it is said, are best equipped to identify the radicalizing threats within their own communities and institutions, and so they can better report suspicious activity. What will be done with the flow of information to government is not disclosed.

Rather, “Empowering” dwells on the information flow from government to the people. It declares, “Communication and meaningful engagement with the American public is [sic] an essential part of the Federal Government’s work…. We do this consistently in a variety of ways: we convene forums, develop brochures, respond to correspondence, post information on websites, and we make available for comment proposed regulations in the Federal Register.” The information will not merely educate people about terrorism or extremism but also promote ideas that the government considers salutary. “Empowering” states that “we refuse to limit our engagement to what we are against, because we need to support active engagement in civic and democratic life….”

The foregoing refers to an ongoing campaign of tax-funded propaganda aimed at instilling the proper attitudes and ideas while battling the wrong ones. “Empowering” is quite open about this tactic. Number 3 of its stated goals is “Countering Violent Extremist Propaganda While Promoting Our Ideals.” An increased presence on the Internet is key to achieving both. “Toward this end, we will continue to closely monitor the important role the internet and social networking sites play in advancing violent extremist narratives. We protect our communities from a variety of online threats, such as sexual predators, by educating them about safety on the internet, and we are using a similar approach to thwart violent extremists. We will work to empower families and communities to counter online violent extremist propaganda, which is increasingly in English and targeted at American audiences.” “Empowering” continues, “The best defenses against violent extremist ideologies are well-informed and equipped families, local communities, and local institutions.” The federal government will be the one to define what constitutes being “well-informed.”

Because it is phrased in such vague terms, it is useful to turn to the reports from which “Empowering” sprang in order to grasp the specifics that the document may be recommending. Two such reports come from the Washington Institute: “Rewriting the Narrative: An Integrated Strategy for Counterradicalization” (2009), and “Fighting the Ideological Battle: The Missing Link in U.S. Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism” (2010). The Homeland Security Policy Institute (HSPI) observed, “Several of the latter study’s recommendations offer sound barometers by which to judge” the intent of “Empowering.”

Among the strategic recommendations of the 2010 study, HSPI identifies “Contest the radical narrative. When extremist speech articulates a threat of imminent violence, which could qualify as criminal hate speech, law enforcement authorities should take appropriate action. Short of such an imminent threat, however, extremist speech should not be banned but contested.”

“Empowering” and its underlying documents are a clear statement of the government’s intention to step up ideological warfare against American communities down to the level of families. At the moment, those who merely state disagreement, either verbally or with their pocketbooks, seem to be targeted only for monitoring and discrediting. Yet law-enforcement agencies are viewed as an integral part of the propaganda campaign, and muscle always tends to flex.

The linguistically boring and bland “Empowering” is a hellaciously frightening document.

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    Wendy McElroy is an author for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a fellow of the Independent Institute, and the author of The Reasonable Woman: A Guide to Intellectual Survival (Prometheus Books, 1998).