One of the things that history teaches us about government is that it never “withers away,” as Karl Marx claimed would happen with the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Foolishness, greed, and lust for power naturally drive any government to grow at every opportunity. Like a rose bush left untended, even our precious Republic can grow wild, producing barren, thorny branches instead of beautiful flowers. We citizens need to be alert for every excess so we can trim it before it grows out of control.
Terrorism, like war, always gives government an opportunity to grow. The threat to law and order seems to call for an adjustment in the balance between liberty and public safety. The World Trade Center and Oklahoma City terrorist bombings are no exceptions. The dust had hardly settled in Oklahoma before the President and some in Congress began the headlong rush toward increasing federal jurisdiction over various crimes. The vehicle for this expansion is President Clinton’s “Omnibus Counterterrorism Act of 1995,” known as H.R. 896 in the House and S. 390 in the Senate.
H.R. 896 is presented as an improvement in the ability of the Federal government to prevent and punish acts of international terrorism. Note that if the bill is truly aimed at international terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing (a domestic terrorist act) is unrelated to it. Why suddenly put the bill on the “fast track” in Congress after that event? It appears to me that the bombing is being used as an excuse to rush this bill through the Congress without due consideration.
There are many parts to this bill; that is why it is called “omnibus.” Some of the parts may even be worthwhile and Constitutional. If there is even one part, however, that violates the Constitution and endangers liberty, the bill must not be allowed to pass. We will focus here on a part that I think does just that: TITLE I–SUBSTANTIVE CRIMINAL LAW ENHANCEMENTS, SEC. 101. ACTS OF TERRORISM TRANSCENDING NATIONAL BOUNDARIES.
This section places all domestic acts of terrorism “transcending national boundaries” under Federal jurisdiction. It then goes on to redefine acts of terrorism to include threatening, conspiring, or carrying out injury or killing of people, or damaging property in violation of any Federal or state law. The guilty party, the victim, or the damaged property must “travel in commerce” or be somehow related to commerce, for the crime to fall under Federal jurisdiction. This non-restriction is designed to get around the Constitution in the name of regulating interstate commerce.
An equally meaningless restriction is the requirement that the Attorney General certify that the crime “transcends national boundaries.” Can we trust Janet Reno to make this determination without prejudice? I don’t. There is no provision in the bill for any challenge to the Attorney General’s certification. If Janet Reno is willing to certify that an act transcends national boundaries, hers is apparently the last word.
What does this mean in a practical sense? Simply that the Federal government could treat virtually any crime against person or property as an act of international terrorism. Let’s say, for example, that some student is caught writing a racist slogan on the restroom wall in a local school. He “traveled in commerce” on the school bus to get to the scene of the crime. His slogan is designed to hurt an identifiable group of people (the race against whom it was aimed). The Attorney General certifies that racism “transcends national boundaries.” The student is now guilty of a Federal crime, punishable by up to 25 years in prison, no parole to be considered.
This case is admittedly ridiculous, because the Attorney General has bigger fish to fry than some Indiana student. The point is, under H.R. 896, practically any illegal act can be designated a severe Federal crime, carrying an extreme penalty. The bill gives the Federal executive branch incredible power to override local and state law enforcement. We need to let our Representative and Senators know that we will not trust the government with that much power.
Proponents of the bill claim that Federal law enforcement agencies lack the power to infiltrate terrorist organizations before they strike. If this is true, when did they lose this power? Gerald Ford’s Attorney General Levi established the Levi guidelines to protect leftist groups from FBI scrutiny. This was a bad idea then, and it is still a bad idea now. Let’s just get rid of these guidelines so the FBI can get on with doing their job. If we think we need some more laws to combat terrorism, let’s take our time and enact laws that do not threaten our liberty.