Extremist Groups and Civil Liberties

2012-06-20 13:57:47

The people of this nation have a great deal to be proud of and to celebrate. At holiday celebrations, the media is ready with hyperbolic words that praise this nation. And why not? The spectacular rise from a barely occupied wilderness to the most powerful nation on Earth in a remarkably short period of time is amazing and worthy of praise.

This was to be a nation built on the labor of many races and a variety of religions; a county that can build anything and everything; who believed in capitalism and not in kings; a nation that votes and accepts change through elections. All of these qualities and more are part of the American national heritage. Less known and not celebrated is this fact: since the formation of colonies, this nation has demonstrated a streak of intolerance, xenophobia, and violence that continues to this time. It can be argued that at every stage of American development, one finds examples of extremist groups in operation.

An example can be seen in religious groups or splinter groups who demonstrate fanaticism. During the 176 years of colonial status, there were instances of violence and extreme measures taken in most colonies against Catholics, Jews, Quakers, and within competing Protestant sects. Before 1692, there were forty-four witchcraft trials and during 1692, there were three hangings in Massachusetts alone. As the fanaticism died down, some 150 prisoners accused of witchcraft were released by the end of the year. One difference between European witchcraft and colonial practices was that in Europe, those found guilty of alleged heresy were burned at the stake, while colonials found guilty of being witches or possessed of the devil, were hung.

Examples of religious intolerance during the colonial period included the banishment of Roger Williams because he rejected the right of civil authorities to legislate in matters of conscience. He and his followers had to flee the Massachusetts Colony or risk persecution. From the Salem witch trials through Mormon battles to exist in a hostile religious climate, one finds terror and violence used against various religious groups.

Beyond extremist groups that took violent action against small, generally vulnerable religious persons and groups, there were extremist groups who persecuted people because of their race. The history of the Ku Klux Klan after the Civil War demonstrates the use of murder, Lynching, torture, and other extreme measures to prevent black people from exercising their newly found freedoms.

Even the passage into constitutional law of three amendments initially aimed at empowering blacks could not stop the overwhelming power of extremist groups in the South from having their way. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution (as well as additional specific laws) did not stop extremist groups from using terror and acts of violence against blacks, Asians, and Native Americans.

Another manifestation of extremists was the vigilante movement that appeared mainly in the last decades of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century. They claimed that the regular justice system was not working to their liking (too slow, too sympathetic to defendants). This led various extremist groups of vigilantes to hold their own ‘‘courts’’ and mete out punishments (including death) to those caught in their net.

In all of these instances of extremist acts, there is a continuing question that seems to be insoluble: what should a nation, through its representatives, its executive, and its system of law do when confronted by one or more organizations that reject the sovereignty of the nation over them? The challenge thrown up by extremists groups is to assert that the national government had failed to adequately act to protect its citizens. Note that this was before September 11, 2001. The obverse can also be seen in hate groups that refuse to admit that the government has any right to control their lives, tax them, or educate them. Frequently the message was bundled with one of racial hatred and religious violence. It was and still is a classic case of safety versus freedom. How much freedom are we (as a nation) willing to give up for safety?

This nation, as is true of many others in the early twenty-first century, has to cope with a new enemy: terrorists. These terrorists come from extremist groups that differ from the long line of earlier extremists in that they seek to win their goals through fear—paralyzing fear of violence emanating from religious, political, and cultural extremists willing to destroy themselves in order to destroy the lives of masses of people and public institutions. They are religious, political, and cultural fanatics beyond anything this and other nations have seen in modern times. They pose a continuing threat to the relatively open boundaries of Western democracies, and they are able to hide behind the existence of their fellow countrymen, who while they may have no involvement in these extremist plans with deadly aims, carry the color of skin and difference in religion as makers of a potential enemy. To date, there have been few instances of actively branding the innocent as an answer to how to identify the truly radical and dangerous. The question is how long will this be the case?

Because so much has changed since September 11, 2001, the need to confront how the nation and its leadership should deal with extremists is crucial.

The existence of extremist groups currently demands that our nation continually evaluate how we should react to these killers and terrorists. Are these murderers entitled to enter the American justice system? Should they be given the protection of the rights under First Amendment and other amendments? All of these issues present the ultimate issue of how we preserve our freedoms at the same time as we effectively protect our citizens and the safety of our national infrastructure.

One clue as to how to deal with extremists is to study the history of extremists in this country. In that history we note that in the twentieth century, extremists organized around leaders who preached hatred of minorities and encouraged the formation of militia- type members. They claimed that their enemy (among others) was the federal government, considered to be under ‘‘Zionist control.’’ One response of these hate groups included moving to relatively open and empty territory, such as in Montana and Utah, where they could practice their beliefs and claim their right to challenge the right of any government over them. The 1980s and 1990s were times of concern in law enforcement circles that extremist groups also targeted violence against law officers and judges.

Three major incidents occurred that explain changes in extremist groups compared to before 9/11/01: the Ruby Ridge shootout, the Waco standoff, and the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995; 168 people were killed in the Oklahoma bombing.

September 11 overwhelmed all instances of Domestic violence until that time except the earlier bombing of the Twin Towers in 1993, which introduced foreign terrorists. Three thousand people were killed as a result of the Twin Towers attack in Manhattan. This crime was committed by Muslim extremist groups. This terrible event created a demarcation point in what has turned out to be a war against extremist groups by the government. Military action in Afghanistan and Iraq followed. What was announced as a war to overthrow the dictatorship became a terrorist plan of destruction against the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Compare 9/11/01 to what happened in Ruby Ridge, Utah. In brief, a warrant had been issued to be served by the U.S. Marshals Service upon a resident in this area. Armed with what have been called illegal ‘‘shoot-to-kill’’ orders, a firefight took place as the occupants attempted to resist the service of the federal warrant, leaving two dead. Although the ties of those involved to radical causes and groups was less than clearly established, the killings became the rallying cry for extremists who, for religious, political, or racial hate reasons used what happened as proof that the federal government was out to destroy their extremist group.

Three years after Ruby Ridge, in 1995, two American citizens, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, plotted the destruction of the Alfred R. Murrah federal building as revenge for the events of Waco; the plot climaxed in an act of terror on the second anniversary of Waco. Both McVeigh and Nichols were followers of extremist groups. Until 9/11/01, the McVeigh and Nichols action was the deadliest attack on American soil. McVeigh believed that his act of destruction of lives and property would be the opening call for all rightwing extremist organizations to rise up in revolution against the national government.

Preceding McVeigh were other ‘‘lone-wolf’’ actors including William Krar, a white supremacist who was arrested having in his possession enough sodium cyanide to kill 6,000 people. Another was Eric Rudolph, a domestic terrorist who killed people in an abortion clinic and at the 1996 summer Olympics.

One of the results of the Oklahoma bombing was actually a decline in domestic terrorists, ‘‘lone wolves,’’ or extremist organizations. But those who study these movements warned what while the number of those involved in rightwing (as well as leftwing extremist groups) have diminished, the hard-core believers are still there. They point to neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Christian identity groups that are still functioning. They advise that while the number of militia groups has dropped from 900 (prior to Oklahoma bombing) to 150, homegrown haters and hate groups are still there—and dangerous.

Since 9/11/01, we are a different nation. To gain an appreciation of this assertion, consider the following.

The presence of extremists in groups and in ‘‘lonewolf ’’ attacks has been a part of American culture since colonial days. There has been an apparent relationship between the openness of American society and the extremes of totalitarian extremism. The use of violence by extremists is a method of taking control into one’s own hands, and has been directed to the production of fear: Where will they strike next?

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries contained many forms of extremism. Until 9/11/01, these forms of extremism have come from white, Protestant individuals and groups and were intended to implant fear into minority groups—or as a control device to keep blacks and other racial or religious minorities from asserting their constitutional rights.

The national government has from time to time used extremist tactics to attack those who were considered dangerous. Examples are the destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies); the use of troops to break strikes; and the first red scare (1918–1920) and the second (1946–1957) that played on the paranoia regarding communists or leftists as dangerous to the existence of the country.

Extremism is found in the left as well as the right in the political spectrum. John Brown fits into the category of leading extremists. Certain groups of environmentalists and animal rights groups can be seen as current extremists of the left.

The planning to destroy large numbers of people and a country’s economy takes advantage of the openness of borders as well as public transportation. Most of the planning can take place thousands of miles away from the targets.

The ability to kill people and harm a nation’s infrastructure with little chance to catch or to stop the terrorist act is a reality because members of the extremist group frequently intend to kill themselves as a sacrifice to the ‘‘cause.’’

Until 9/11/01, most people in the United States neither understood nor cared about the Muslim religion. Certain Muslim extremists hate Western nations and particularly the United States, believing that this nation has and will continue to corrupt and weaken their culture. They also believe that the aim of the United States and their allies is to conquer Muslim nations for their oil.

Not one nation openly supports the Muslim fanatics; instead, bands of these fighters ‘‘float’’ from one nation to another. They seem to have an endless number of men, women, and children ready to sacrifice their lives for their religious cause. This is a technique that the United States and its allies have not seen prior to 9/11/01.

Brutalities such as beheading are used against anyone they consider an enemy, and at times for no valid reason but to promote fear in countries where such behavior is neither understood nor acceptable. Some countries have already bent to the will of fanatic groups to avoid the relentless war being waged, thus rejecting American leadership in the war against fanatics.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘‘They that give up essential liberty in order to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.’’ This statement may no longer be entirely valid. Certainly it is subject to challenge: a little ‘‘temporary safety’’ in the sense Franklin made this statement is no longer possible in today’s world. Oceans, mountain ranges, densely populated cities and industrial areas, as well as buildings of every kind have proven to be no barrier to terrorists.

There has been (thus far) an absence of suicides in domestic extremist groups but there seems to be no feasible way of providing the safety that Franklin addressed, especially if airlines, ships, trains, shopping malls, among many other possibilities, may become effective targets for suicidal terrorists. The slide down the slippery slope of restricting liberties seems to afford at least the appearance of ‘‘doing something’’ to respond effectively to the threat posed by these extremists.

The red scares that followed World Wars I and II yielded legislation aimed at ensuring the loyalty of its citizens. Action was taken against those whose beliefs were not orthodox. Aliens were shipped out of the country. Criminal legal procedures were taken against alleged subversives.

With the collapse of Soviet Russia, the cold war seemed to yield a period of peaceful times; 9/11/01 shattered that peace. Terrorists were actually trained in this country to fly large aircraft, and turned that skill into opportunities for death and destruction. Looking back at the red scare years, there was not a single instance of any communist having a cache of arms, military training, bombing, or attempt to use suicide terrorists on targets. What they were most guilty of was their beliefs. On the other hand, such rightwing groups as the National Alliance, Aryan Nations, and Creativity Movement were frequently trained in armed conduct. They gathered weapons with the goal of creating some sort of revolution. They carried out armed actions; between 1995 and 2005, fifteen law enforcement officers were killed by these antigovernment fanatic groups. Still, however, there was no realistic chance that they would even successfully mount an attempt to kill masses of people or disrupt the nation. When threats became possible, they came from outside the nation.

The response of the administration that came in the wake of the successful killing of some 3,000 people as well as destroying the Twin Towers, was to rush through Congress with little or no dissent, a law commonly called the USA Patriotic Act. The basic idea was to give law enforcement agencies powerful tools with which to respond to the terrorist act of 9/11/01, and to stop further acts of violence against this nation.

As the act rushed through Congress, there was little thought given to the civil rights issues involved, although there was a section of the law that expressed the sense that all Americans, including Arab Americans, must be protected.

The heart of the act was to direct and authorize actions against those who might attempt attacks on Americans and the American infrastructure. To a significant extent, the Patriot Act set aside restrictions as to what the federal government could do that the government could not do since 1976. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has used bugging devices, letter opening, invasion of offices and homes, infiltration of domestic organizations, and many other illegal or extralegal acts. Hoover died in 1972 and there followed a wide-ranging congressional committee whose work revealed abuse of power by Hoover and his FBI. These restrictions, coming out of a congressional committee’s work, allowed the government to once again use these powers and techniques. Additionally, this means that the FBI can monitor groups and public meetings, and the Internet. The FBI could even send undercover agents to suspected houses of worship.

As of this writing, the effectiveness of those operating under the umbrella of the Patriot Act remains to be seen. That the act (most of it permanent as of early 2006) raises important issues of infringement of civil rights seems evident. Secret trials, hidden detainees, torture, and profiling are intended to break the will of those who seek to sway history through terror. In the case of aliens alleged to be terrorists, it appears that no concern for their civil rights limits our government. Intrusions and detentions are the price these people pay as the nation continually seeks out its enemies. Only time will answer the question of whether the nation has gone too far to ensure its safety against extremists. Perhaps the times have been so catastrophic in scope that the Patriot Act as well as other measures will justify the curtailment of civil rights and liberties. The march of history will eventually answer.