The New York Times has a front-page story with the fear-mongering headline "Homemade Style of Terror," which describes in detail how Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and several other criminals became "radicalized" by using the Internet. Scott Shane's article mistakenly and disturbingly conflates extremist views with violent action:
. . . Al Qaeda propagandists for several years have called on their devotees in the United States to carry out smaller-scale solo attacks and provided the online education to teach them how.Shane's article also implies that assassinating Americans Anwar Al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in a drone strike somehow successfully stopped their radical ideas, a fact completely contradicted by the underlying impetus for the article, the Boston Marathon bombing, which occurred years after Al-Awlaki and Khan's deaths at the hands of the U.S. government:
“I strongly recommend all of the brothers and sisters coming from the West to consider attacking America in its own backyard,” wrote Samir Khan, an American who joined Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch and emerged as a fervent advocate of homegrown, do-it-yourself terrorism before he was killed in an American drone strike in September 2011.The country's paper of record owes us better than to promote such a dangerously anti-speech perspective.
Shane's article features a visual of
Timothy J. McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City; Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in Fort Hood, Tex.; Faisal Shahzad, who planted a bomb in Times Square; and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who has been held in the Boston bombing.Yet, despite that Shane assumes all of these individuals are "homegrown terrorists," Shane includes no analysis or even mention of the legal definition of terrorism. According to U.S. law (18 U.S.C. Sec. 2331), terrorism is activities that
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;Note the definition does not include reading pro-violent Internet websites, becoming "radicalized," publishing a magazine, or giving anti-U.S. sermons. Not only do those activities not qualify as terrorism, but they are protected under the First Amendment.
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping;
Shane gives ample ink juxtaposing the need to stop violent actions with a need to stop people from "self-radicalizing" on the Internet, a link that inevitably leads governments to slide into censorship and targeting people based on their speech and religion and what they view online. (Not to mention that getting information online is hardly a revolutionary concept. The government would be hard-pressed to find anyone who does not educate themselves on the Internet).
Aside from being undemocratic and unconstitutional, targeting speech and ideas is a wasteful, ineffective counter-terrorism strategy. The slippery slope of conflating radical thinking with violent action is not pedagogical. The F.B.I.'s infiltration of mosques, for example, has negatively impacted law enforcement's relationship with the Muslim-American community, thereby hindering investigations of actual crimes. (Read the Brennan Center's excellent report on Radicalization for countless examples of government making the mistake of assuming there is some discernible path to radicalization). Contrary to the implication in today's NYT article that radical ideas are somehow responsible for violence, most people with extremist ideas do not commit crimes neither do the people who hear, read or see pro-violent media. (Check out the number of hits on these incendiary videos.) At least Shane's article gives a brief nod to that logic:
But Michael German, a former F.B.I. agent who is now at the A.C.L.U., said the problem with focusing on extremist views was that the vast majority of people who express them never turn to violence. Instead, the bureau should focus on illegal acts, he said.German's logic is based on first-hand experience working as an undercover F.B.I. agent on counter-terrorism investigations, but unfortunately the NYT coverage gives more credit to Shane's obsession with making Al-Awlaki and Khan somehow responsible for the actions of people who watched them on You Tube, an obsession that has been on full display before. Here I am debating Shane on Democracy Now! about his articles toeing the administration's line on Al-Awlaki being somehow "operational" as opposed to just the offensive propagandist he was:
Despite attempts to shoehorn McVeigh, Hasan, Shahzad, and Tsarnaev into some homegrown terrorist profile (a profile experts have found doesn't really exist), the reality is that the responsibility lies with people who commit crimes, whether they were inspired by a You Tube video or not.
Government efforts to target or stop extremist, anti-American ideas will not stop violent actions, and the futile process will do more damage to the First Amendment than to terrorist plots, which, ironically, is usually the goal of a terrorist plot.