Police State/Civil Liberties

The dangerous incentive in a new domestic terror unit

By Jonathan Blanks, The Week

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) this week announced it would create a new internal unit to focus on domestic terrorism. Citing ethnically and politically motivated killings in El Paso, Pittsburgh, Charleston, and two attacks against Congress — Jan. 6 last year and the shooting at a Republican practice session for the annual congressional baseball game in 2017 — Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told the Senate Judiciary Committee that countering violent domestic extremists is among DOJ’s “highest priorities.” The new unit will work closely with the Civil Rights Division, Olsen added, likely to allay civil libertarian fears of government overreach.

Certainly, given the troubling episodes of violence meant to harm or intimidate political opponents and national organizations implicated in those events, a coordinated federal response seems appropriate. Indeed, federal law enforcement is most justifiable when state and local agencies are unable or, in the worst cases, unwilling to effectively protect civil rights and liberties of individuals in their jurisdictions. The federal government is often the organization best positioned to find and prosecute political actors who repeatedly participate in violent incidents in different jurisdictions across the country.

However, political and ideological views and the right to disseminate and organize around those views — no matter how noxious — are protected by the Constitution up to the point those actions spur violence or other crimes. Even with the best intentions and staffed with attorneys of the highest integrity from the outset, a domestic terrorism team will be inherently susceptible to shifting politics and mission creep that could impermissibly target protected First Amendment activity and violate the due process rights of law-abiding Americans.

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