Where Terrorists and Assassins Don't Hide

At the end of last week, I wrote about a report showing how law enforcement authorities reacted to Occupy protests as if they were the advance guard for an al Qaeda invasion of America, on the apparent assumption that unlike non-violent right-wing dissent, non-violent left-wing dissent is likely a prelude to violence and thus must be met with surveillance, infiltration, and ultimately force. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a decision on a case involving the Secret Service that seems to grow from a similar assumption about the connection between dissent and violence.

The case was about an incident in 2004 when President George W. Bush stopped at an outdoor restaurant in Oregon. A crowd quickly formed, with some people cheering Bush and some jeering him. The Secret Service forced both groups away from the location, but let the pro-Bush citizens stay closer than the anti-Bush citizens; the plaintiffs charged that this was impermissible viewpoint discrimination. The Court ruled 9-0 that the Secret Service acted reasonably to protect the president. Having read the decision, I don't necessarily disagree with their reasoning—a lot of it turned on things like lines of sight to where the president was sitting from different corners in the area. But I'd be shocked if the agents involved weren't particularly on their guard when the anti-Bush protesters showed up.

What we ought to question is the assumption that there's any connection at all between the content of a non-violent protest and the potential for premeditated violence, particularly of the really dangerous kind, like terrorist attacks and attempts to assassinate the president. If you have two groups of people yelling at the president, and one group is saying "You're great!" while the other group says "You suck!", is there any higher probability that a threat to the president's life will come from the second group than the first? The answer is, of course not. If someone wanted to assassinate the president, they would have no reason to seek out a bunch of protesters opposing that president to use as a cover. They'd want to get close enough to fire a shot, and it wouldn't matter what the people among whom they hid would be saying.

That's true despite whatever intuitive sense one might have that people who are opposed to the president might want to assassinate him. There's a belief not just that anti-government violence exists on the same spectrum as peaceful protest, but that at at any given moment, such violence is a potential outgrowth of such protest. And more: that people planning violence will incorporate peaceful protest into their plans.

That assumption leads to things like the Department of Defense spying on Quaker anti-war protesters during the Iraq war. Think about how nuts that is. The anti-terrorism officials whom we charge with our safety actually seemed to believe that al Qaeda would send a cell to America with plans to launch a major attack, and instruct them: "The week before zero hour, make sure you go to an anti-war rally. Make a sign that says 'Bush Is the Real Terrorist.' That will lay the groundwork for the explosion."

Again, this case about the Secret Service was probably rightly decided, but the belief that terrorism, bombings, assassinations, and/or general violent mayhem are the potential result of every left-wing protest is absolutely common among law enforcement authorities at every level of government. It isn't just factually wrong, it's actually dangerous—to the people who end up having their rights violated, and to the country's safety.

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