Congress is about to approve the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007. This is not necessarily a good thing for Internet users.
I say that because VRAHTPA establishes a new federal commission tasked with investigating Americans with "extremist belief systems" and those who may engage in "ideologically based violence." This effort is expected to cost $22 million.
It's possible, of course, that nothing will come of VRAHTPA. Technically no new laws are being proposed except those creating the so-called National Commission on the Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism.
But creating a homeland security commission staffed primarily by Washington types with security clearances, which will be run by Washington antiterror types, which meets mostly in secret, and which will present a classified report to the president about "extremist belief systems"--well, that has the potential to turn ugly.
Here's an actual example of censorial mission creep from Alabama's Department of Homeland Security, which believes domestic terrorists are those Americans who say the "U.S. government is infringing on their individual rights, and/or that the government's policies are criminal and immoral."
I guess that would make Al Gore a domestic terrorist, especially after his speech last year saying "the executive branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue." Presidential candidate Ron Paul, of course, is even guiltier, as are those pesky ACLUers, EFFers, and libertarians.
You can get a feel for where this commission is heading in this excerpt from the legislation to create it, which has already cleared by the House of Representatives by a 404-6 vote and is now headed to the Senate:
The Internet has aided in facilitating violent radicalization, ideologically based violence, and the homegrown terrorism process in the United States by providing access to broad and constant streams of terrorist-related propaganda to United States citizens.
Meanwhile, around the same time as the House vote, congressional committees were holding hearings titled "Using the Web as a Weapon: the Internet as a Tool for Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism." One witness warned: "In many ways the Internet favors the religious extremist. It allows anyone to set himself or herself up as an authority figure."
Now, I know this is mostly an attempt by the Democratic leadership to seem tough on terror in the run-up to an election and all that -- VRAHTPA's sponsored by Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- but even symbolic political measures can take on a life of their own.
Nowhere in the limited powers awarded the federal government by the U.S. Constitution do I see authorization to police "extremist belief systems." That's coming close to punishing thoughtcrime.