Guilt by Association

To clear up Douglas Farah’s confusion, the “seemingly benign” language is not mine (which is why I put it in quotes), rather it comes from Chief Justice John Roberts’ description (pdf) of the broad scope of the material support prohibition, which the Supreme Court held could criminalize association with a U.S. government-designated terrorist organization even if intended only to provide humanitarian aid in conflict zones or dissuade the group from violence. Indeed, the Holy Land Foundation case Farah references is an example of this broad prosecutorial authority, not to mention the government’s shuttering of several Muslim charities through asset seizure powers exercised without prosecution, or even the opportunity to challenge the government’s claims.

The point of my argument was not to re-litigate the Holy Land Foundation case, as he suggests, but to challenge the notion that the other groups he mentioned pose a security threat to the United States, which is the topic of this discussion. The fact that the government, despite its robust powers and demonstrated aggressiveness in using them, has not seized the assets or charged criminally the groups Farah disparages as having a “dangerous” theology is a pretty good indicator that it has no credible evidence to believe they pose a threat. Under current rules the government could even shut them down using secret evidence it never has to expose to adversarial scrutiny. These groups may very well have associations and ideologies that Farah and others find objectionable, and as a free speech advocate I wholeheartedly support his right to express such concerns, but that doesn’t make these groups, or their ideas, a security threat. And it is an entirely different matter when government officials express such opinions in a manner that denies these organizations the opportunity to defend themselves, in violation of their Fifth Amendment due process rights.

Our founders made clear that government has no business policing Americans’ ideas, speech, religion or associations, and it is important, especially in times of peril, to realize these freedoms are our strength and not a weakness. As New York Governor Al Smith said in vetoing Lusk Committee legislation targeting the groups it found dangerous based on their “radical” ideas and associations: “It is a confession of the weakness of our faith in the righteousness of our cause when we attempt to suppress by law those who do not agree with us.” Using a legislative forum to smear individuals and organizations as threats based on their ideas and associations is as wrong and counter-productive today as it was during Chairman Lusk’s reign.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Risa Brooks argues that the threat of homegrown jihadist terrorism has often been exaggerated. U.S. Muslims have generally shown little inclination toward terrorism. The small minority who feel differently have proven themselves startlingly inept. The Muslim community has proven itself eager to report suspected militants, and many plots would never have progressed beyond fantasy without the “help” of FBI sting operations. Worrying too much about this threat diverts resources from other valuable FBI endeavors, foments suspicion in the Muslim community, and erodes our civil liberties.

Response Essays

  • Douglas Farah draws our attention to the recruiting efforts and propaganda of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is profoundly violent, anti-western, anti-Semitic, and pro-terrorist. The group’s propaganda is widespread in American mosques, he warns, and the Muslim Brotherhood exerts significant influence over Islam in America. Although American Muslims may not generally be inclined to violence, it is clear that some of them are, and we should not underestimate the threat when we can see it so clearly stated in the available recruitment and propaganda literature.

  • Michael German calls attention to the civil liberties violations that have sprung up as a direct result of our antiterrorism policies. Federal agencies have investigated tens of thousands of innocents and collected data on many more; the surveillance industrial complex has grown enormously, and traditional privacy protections have been removed. Meanwhile, we still often stop terrorists through a combination of their own incompetence, courage on the part of ordinary civilians, and plain good luck. This suggests that our surrender of civil liberties has done us little good, if any.

  • Brian Michael Jenkins examines American jihadism and concludes that it’s largely an Internet phenomenon. Sympathies for jihad run wider than they are deep. The 2009-2010 uptick in arrests can partly be explained by Somali reactions to the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Jenkins finds that national and clan ties likely have more motivating power than al Qaeda’s ideology. Still, because Americans unrealistically expect 100% security, he voices concern that even a single terrorist success could provoke panicked overreactions.