Repressing Civil Liberties Isn't the Answer:

To diffuse the militia movement, acknowledge increasing federal lawlessness

By Dave Kopel           

Los Angeles Times, May 1, 1995

To respond intelligently to the militia and patriot movements, we must acknowledge that although they are permeated with implausible conspiracy theories, they are a reaction to increasing militarization, lawlessness and violence on the part of federal law enforcement-a problem that should concern all Americans.

It is lawful in the United States to exercise freedom of speech and the right to bear arms. Spending weekends in the woods practicing with firearms and listening to right-wing political speeches is not my idea of a good time, but there is nothing illegal about it.

It is hate-mongering to tie all militia members or patriots to the Oklahoma City bombing. Law-abiding militia members are no more responsible for Oklahoma City than law-abiding Arab Americans are responsible for the deeds of the Libyan secret service.

If we want to shrink the militia movement, the surest way is to reduce criminal and abusive behavior by the federal government and to demand a thorough, open investigation of what happened at Waco. If, as the evidence strongly suggests, federal agents broke the law, they should be prosecuted.

Unfortunately, the response of President Clinton and his chief spear-carrier, Charles Schumer, is just the opposite. They propose broad new anti-terrorism legislation that allows secret trials with secret evidence for illegal aliens, wiretapping without a court order, expanded use of the military in domestic law enforcement, greater authority for the FBI to investigate individuals and groups absent evidence of criminal activity and giving the President non-reviewable, unilateral power to declare any group a terrorist organization.

In recent decades, the FBI spied on Martin Luther King Jr., infiltrated the civil-rights movement, sent agents-provocateurs into organizations protesting the Vietnam War and attempted to incite them to violence and harassed Americans opposed to U.S. policy in El Salvador. Increased federal repression is a sure-fire formula for abuse of constitutional rights. Far from being secretive, militias and patriot groups hold public meetings that they advertise in local newspapers. If dissident groups are outlawed and driven underground, then some may become convinced that working within the system is impossible.   

Countries like Great Britain are decades ahead of us in repressing civil liberties and increasing secret government powers as a solution to terrorism. Rather than stopping terrorism, the repressive British policies have destroyed large chunks of traditional Anglo American freedoms and led to the conviction for terrorist offenses of innocent people like the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

America's great strength has always been its tolerance, its freedom and its determination to make the government abide by the law. If we sacrifice these strengths in order to symbolically demonstrate our opposition to terrorism, then we will have let the terrorists win.

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