THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 312, March 27, 2005
"The sooner the better"
Special to TLE
I... am a terrorist. No, no, not that kind of terrorist, but apparently a terrorist nonetheless. You may be even more surprised to learn that you might be, too.
Before we can really talk about terrorists and terrorism, we need to understand just how it is that terrorism is defined. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English language, terrorism is either "the unlawful use or threat of violence especially against the state or the public as a politically motivated means of attack or coercion" or "violent and intimidating gang activity."
The idea behind terrorism is simple: to generate terror. The methodology, regardless of the specifics, is simple: sudden and deadly violence of the kind that any rational human being would find terrifying. Terrorists hope their actions will engender whatever change it is they're aiming to facilitate through such intense fear. In a world where news is both quick and global, there are few who don't know about any number of examples of such acts of terrorism, thus spreading the effects far and wide.
There are those in Israel or in Israeli-occupied terroritories who promote their cause by strapping explosives to themselves and then setting them off in public places. They are hoping to use a fear of crowds in shopping, entertainment, or transportation venues (not to mention the very real economic implications of such fears even when they're not realized) as a way of getting the Israelis to leave disputed lands and/or to acknowledge Palestinian autonomy.
The men who bombed an American military barracks in the Middle East, and those who set off explosives near the hull of a US battleship in port to collect supplies, were working to cause fear, doubt, and dissent among members of the US military (the fact that they were also making a point against US policy in that region of the world was almost incidental). By so doing, they apparently were hoping to decrease any American miliitary presence in that part of the world. At the least, they might have hoped to undermine American military discipline.
The hijackers who flew passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 had some specific goals in mind, too. With their World Trade Center targets, they intended to wreak some economic havoc (terrorists had struck the WTC before and for much the same reason). In targeting the Pentagon and some other Washington institution (the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania was believed headed for either the US Capitol or the White House) were shouting out loud and clear their disapproval of American foreign policy in the Middle East. The symbolism of the targets is unquestionable; the terror that followed is also a matter of record.
In its knee jerk reaction to the 9/11 attacks, the federal government rapidly defined its targets not only as terrorists but as those who are broadly defined as "potential" terrorists. It also established anti-terror laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act and new agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security. From the perspective of both the laws and the agencies, the most immediate result was that of a curtailment of civil liberties. Numerous innocent Americans have to undergo the expense and inconvenience of proving that they aren't guilty of anything other than wanting to fly on an airplane or open a bank account. Some of them have even been jailed indefinitely without so much as the proffering of charges against them. (I freely grant you that some of those being held in Guantanamo are probably real live terrorists by a real live definition of the word. But if there's enough evidence to suggest that that's the case, let's see some charges filed! And if there's not enough evidence even for that, then perhaps we should let them go. Fortunately, it wasn't too long ago that a Federal judge said pretty much the same thing, and the government is now scrambling to make some kind of case.)
Distilled down to its most basic premise, virtually any human being could loosely be termed a "potential" terrorist. After all, if you have an index finger and an opposable thumb, you could conceivably shoot somebody. If you have even a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry, you might be able to understand instructions as to how to manufacture some explosive compound or another. But an exceedingly rare few actually live up (or down) to their "potential." In a country of more than 300 million people, we're looking at Timothy McVeigh, Terry Nichols, Eric Robert Rudolph, the "Unibomber," and a few lunatic anti-abortion folka percentage of the "potential" total that's so close to zero it can scarcely be registered. Yet by terming potentiality as a criteria, there's an even more real potential to fear: the potential for abuse of such definitions by authorities.
Even so, merely saying that virtually all of us are "potential" terrorists doesn't get to the real heart of the matter. The biggest problem for those of us who are innocent is that some in government have gone much further. They've enaged in what is essentially a rewriting of definitions so as to target some people who are notespecially at the momentparticularly popular with those same government authorities. Coincidentally (or perhaps not so coincidentally), many of the people falling under these more refined definitions are the same people who are the most likely to be railing against government inroads against various freedoms.
For example, some years ago, then-Attorney General Janet Reno made it widely known that she considered fundamental Christians to be suspect as "potential" terrorists (this was before the word "potential" was so haphazardly applied to pretty much everybody). That fact played no small role in her subsequent orders to immolate almost a hundred men, women, and children in Waco, Texas (an act which, as it turns out, inspired one of America's few real domestic terrorists, Timothy McVeigh). The problem with such fundamentalists is neither their belief system per se nor that they don't fit in well with the so-called "mainstream." It is, instead, an unshakable belief in certain things that interfere with various programs the government is trying to maintain or institute.
Consider that it's almost impossible to get anything but the most grudging compliance from fundamentalist Christians if what you're trying to do is get them to cooperate with anything that could conceivably be defined by them as Revelations' "Mark of the Beast." Very few of these people go so far as to refuse Social Security numbers, but you can almost bet that they'll be fighting the forthcoming National ID card in much larger numbers. For reasons that can easily be logically refuted, the government has determined that the ID cards are a great way to fight terrorism. Do you really think they're going to take any refusals to participate particularly well?
A man of my acquaintance was recently in attendance at a kind of educational seminar (for lack of a better term) conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. As a local emergency services provider, he's treated to such events periodically. This time around, along with his "weapons of mass destruction awareness training," he was also informed that those supporting a strict interpretation of the Constitution are terrorists.
Most recently, a high school student who wrote a story for a creative writing class has been accused of making terrorist threats. Now, although I oppose such draconian censorship measures, I wouldn't have been surprised to learn he'd written about some student showing up in school with a gun, or some other student determining to set off a bomb on school grounds. In the age of zero tolerance, the authorities seem to consider the fiction of today the certain fact of tomorrow. But no, this kid wrote about zombies. That's right. He wrote about zombies taking over the school. Given last summer's big success of the movie remake of Dawn of the Dead, perhaps his story wasn't as creative or original as it might have been. But indicative of terrorism? As one of my heroes, John Stossel, would say: Give me a break!
Even as the label "terrorist" is being redefined, so is the term "patriot." A patriot is, quit simply, one who loves his country. But now some government officials suggest that anyone who criticizes the war effort in Iraq is "unpatriotic." Others in positions of government authority (John Ashcroft, are you still listening?) have made it clear that anyone who suggests that civil liberties might be more important than absolute safety are behaving unpatriotically. And our Commander in Chief himself has strongly implied that those who aren't Christians can't love their country (if that country is the United States, at any rate) and thus can't possibly be patriots.
I'm not a fundamentalist Christian, but I do believe that the National ID card and similar tracking measures are evil because they undermine freedom. I'm not personally in law enforcement or other emergency services, but I am concerned at the rapidly growing mindset that potentiality is all but synonymous with actuality. I'm not a high school student, but I've certainly written a few things (this column undoubtedly among them) that certain of those in government might not find particularly agreeable. And you all know I've been critical of various government programs, in large part because I do support a literal interpretation of the Constitution as well as a return to the ideals of the Constitution as they were originally presented to the 13 colonies prior to ratification.
In George Orwell's infamous novel 1984, one of the hallmarks of the tyrannical government under which his characters lived was something called "newspeak." By using "newspeak," the government redefined various words to mean whatever it wanted them to mean, and via incessant propaganda, it made sure the general population knew the "correct" definitions as well. In the novel, bad was redefined as good, and war became peace; history was rewritten on an almost daily basis to conform.
This habit of redefining words might be a little more subtle in the real world, but there's very little question that it's happening. The recent discoveries of government propaganda films released as "news" stories was dismaying, but not unsurprising (the biggest surprise, I think, was that the GAO actually told the government to knock it off). In the short run, I suppose, then, I should consider any government attempts to label me and people like me as "unpatriotic" or a "terrorist" as actually being a compliment. But in the long run, government's predilection to change such definitions on a whim doesn't bode well for me... or for any of the rest of you, either.
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