Wednesday, December 26, 2007

This Year's Legislative Lump of Coal

With the 9/11 attacks al Qaeda sought to draw the United States into the "slow bleeding" of wars in Muslim countries, sapping American will to remain in the Middle East while increasing Muslim resentment against the United States and support for the global jihad. With the invasion of Iraq, its disastrous progress, and the rapid unraveling of the Bush administration's fictive justification leading to a concomitant unraveling of American prestige and power, al Qaeda's once delusional analysts succeeded beyond their wildest fantasies. There could be no more effective articulation of their claims of US aggression against Muslims than the invasion of Iraq.

The terrorist attacks were a challenge to our military presence in the Middle East; the administration reacted by reasserting that presence dramatically. Success was to have broken finally resistance that didn't begin with 9/11. We all know the fanciful process by which this was supposed to happen. Things haven't gone as planned. But there's another constituency which now distrusts the US presence in the Middle East. Because of its humbling failure, the administration may have turned the American public against a military commitment that it previously took for granted, to the extent it considered it at all.

But even if America is run out of the region altogether, al Qaeda's ultimate goal of re-establishing the Caliphate remains as fantastical as it is unappealing to the vast majority of Muslims, no matter how much their resentment of the US leads them to identify with the global jihad and terrorism. There are only two factions who take this delirium seriously: fanatical jihadis and true-believing neocons (as opposed to neocon fellow travellers who simply cite it disingenuously).

Had the jihadis of al Qaeda a greater understanding of our society and its history, they might have recognized and deliberately sought the less dramatic, more insidious wound they nonetheless managed to inflict with the dramatic strike of 9/11. They may have inflicted a wound to liberal democracy itself that will take generations to heal.

The global jihad was influenced by the West's own Marxist rhetoric, with Muslim scholars adopting much of the language of the Left from the sixties and early seventies, so perhaps they adopted another strategy of the now defunct terrorist Left of that time period. A few diehard groups in Western Europe, dismayed by the success of center-left political coalitions, the collapse of authentic Communist parties in the wake of Soviet brutality toward the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian revolts, and the proletariat's improving material circumstances and lack of enthusiasm for class struggle, took the Marxist-Leninist analysis to its logical extremes. Acts of terrorist violence, they reasoned, would provoke repressive countermeasures from Western European democracies, exposing the "repressive tolerance" inherent in the system and causing the once deluded masses to rise up, finally, in revolt. The underlying theoretic rationale may be shaky, but as a strategy it would make far more sense than planning to revive the Ottoman Empire.

Germany's Baader Meinhof gang and Italy's Red Brigades ultimately got nowhere with their strategy of provocation (though traces of the far more effective Red Brigades remain, as well as sympathy for Brigate Rosse). They were isolated and targeted by governments that refused, or were unable, to play along. Perhaps all these revolutionaries lacked was their 9/11; a sudden, transcendental act of violence so extreme that it rendered their targets irrational. This may explain the openly admiring, reverential response of some aging leftist radicals to the towers' fall.
The jihadis, by virtue of the suddenness and drama of the Twin Towers' collapse, above all by virtue of those heart-rending pictures, have managed to provoke.

Only the masses, mostly shielded from and welcoming the degradation in civil liberties they see as directed outward, aren't rising up. The core reason for the terrorist left's failure remains; the people are inherently conservative and desire security and prosperity above all. Even now, six years on and with little evidence of a domestic terror threat, the public assents, to the extent it pays attention, to the dismantling of the Constitution. The absence of a terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11 and the dearth of "homegrown" terrorists hasn't cooled the ardor of most politicians for ever more restrictions on a public within an ever-widening surveillance state. Into the void of apathy, as always, strides political ambition.

Even without crisis, the need for politicians to look like they are necessary and vital, above all doing something, ensures the continual flow of unnecessary legislation and its attendant dispersal of public wealth from which private and public interests alike swill as if from a perpetually self-renewing spring. Problems, exaggerated or downright fraudulent, exacerbated or created by politicians themselves, are the raw material used in fabricating political careers. The passion, fear, greed and paranoia of the public, sometimes meticulously cultivated, not hard reality, determines the amount of attention political leaders conspicuously, if not necessarily effectively, pay to these troubles.

Thus we get the costly busy work that produces legislation with titles that none but the blackest heart, surely, would stand athwart; War Orphans Acts and Wet Nosed Puppies Resolutions. Normally waste and fraud are the severest damage coming from this defect of democracy. In the perverse and perilous atmosphere of our current moment, the costs to the Republic of personal ambition are considerably higher.

The latest piece of dubious legislation that we can only hope turns out to be no more than a pointless waste of tax dollars and time and not a vehicle for further degrading freedom of speech and association, the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007, has caused some commotion out here on the open range of the Internet, but most Americans remain unaware of its existence. The bill has was passed in the House with a level of bipartisanship (404 to 6), that suggests either its utter pointlessness or the kind of mass political cowardice and corruption that gave us the PATRIOT Act and, nearly, "comprehensive immigration reform", and is all but assured passage without significant alteration. The proposal comes from Jane Harman of California, who was missing in action as the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, offering no resistance to illegal wiretapping and little more to the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes.

The bill would create something called "the National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism", to convene hearings on the potential for and identification of domestically originated terrorist associations and even, perhaps most ominously, individual radicalization, presumably through the Internet and other media, leading to "lone wolf" terrorism.
Of course the Internet figures prominently in the air of impending doom the act projects in its findings. What it does not account for is the remarkable dearth of domestically originated terrorism thus far. Why the sad sacks of the Sears Tower plot and the uncertain case of the Lackawanna Six would warrant the creation of yet another governmental entity within or without the multi-billion dollar homeland security complex created following 9/11 is not explained, and judging from the mass acquiescence of Congress, few are asking.
The commission's mandate is broad and flexible, empowering any sub-commitee or individual commitee member to call hearings:

The Commission or, on the authority of the Commission, any subcommittee or member thereof, may, for the purpose of carrying out this section, hold hearings and sit and act at such times and places, take such testimony, receive such evidence, and administer such oaths as the Commission considers advisable to carry out its duties.
The commission is to terminate after 18 months, producing "a university-based Center of Excellence for the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism", which remains ill-defined.

As Philip Giralidi points out, empowering commission members individually, acting whenever and wherever they wish, could potentially turn it into something akin to the McCarthy hearings:
Like Joe McCarthy and HUAC in the past, the commission will travel around the United States and hold hearings to find the terrorists and root them out. Unlike inquiries in the past where the activity was carried out collectively, the act establishing the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Commission will empower all the members on the commission to arrange hearings, obtain testimony, and even to administer oaths to witnesses, meaning that multiple hearings could be running simultaneously in various parts of the country.
Any such legislation carries the potential for opportunistic spill-over; the same vague definitions and broad mandate this bill utilizes to reserve powers are the breaches through which the zealous of various ideological convictions will pour. To avoid the appearance of "racial profiling" and "Islamophobia" the bill states its purpose as identifying radicalization of any sort. The commission could become a vehicle for harassment of a wide range of activist organizations and websites; it's not hard to imagine the SPLC appearing before the commission with its list of "hate sites", David Horowitz using the venue to call out "anti-Semitic" university professors, or the ACLU dropping its opposition to the scheme to seek the designation of some anti-abortion groups as "terrorist." The targeting of individual radicalization, with its hints of thought-crime, must have Daniel Pipes fidgeting in anticipation of testifying about "sudden jihadi syndrome."

The most chilling aspect for freedom of speech and association may lie in the commission's high profile imprimatur to identify and publicly label groups and individuals "extremist." Merely being subpeonaed by the commission could prove to threaten livelihoods.
Imagine the commission, cobbled together by partisan horse trading between Republicans and Democrats and thus encompassing a wide array of opinion regarding what constitutes extremism, its members individually empowered to convene hearings and subpoena witnesses and trading one hearing or ruling for another among themselves.
They'll have the opportunity to bring forth allied "experts" using (and seeking) grants paid in tax dollars, pushing whole-cloth theories of how certain "extreme" views and statements, say regarding sex, race, immigration, abortion or religion, inevitably lead to and therefore constitute violent radicalization, prompting the commission or its "Center" (ironically, al Qaeda means "the center") to recommend that websites publishing these views be labelled, surveiled or otherwise harassed; perhaps even dragging individuals who write for them before their hearings to explain their heterodox views.
I repeat: we'll be lucky if it's merely a colossal waste of money and time.

***

Add:
As a novice clumsily researching these things, I find myself wondering if something that draws my attention is unremarkable. Nonetheless, I couldn't help noticing the commission is exempted from The Federal Advisory Committee Act, which seeks to limit the number, authority and activities of such:

(a) The Congress finds that there are numerous committees,
boards, commissions, councils, and similar groups which have been
established to advise officers and agencies in the executive branch
of the Federal Government and that they are frequently a useful and
beneficial means of furnishing expert advice, ideas, and diverse opinions to the Federal Government.
(b) The Congress further finds and declares that -
(1) the need for many existing advisory committees has not been adequately reviewed:
(2) new advisory committees should be established only when they are
determined to be essential and their number should be kept to the minimum necessary;
(3) advisory committees should be terminated when they are no longer carrying out the purposes for which they were established;
(4) standards and uniform procedures should govern the establishment, operation,
administration, and duration of advisory committees;
(5) the Congress and the public should be kept informed with respect to the number, purpose, membership, activities, and cost of advisory committees; and
(6) the function of advisory committees should be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined, in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or officer involved.

1 comment:

Steve Sailer said...

This theory of provoking revolution by first provoking repression was tried out most fully in Uruguay around 1970. There, it only succeeded in the first stage: bringing down the well-established democracy and replacing it with a military dictatorship. Not surprisingly, the military proved more effective at controlling power than Marxist theoretician radicals.