Posted by on September 02, 2011 in Blog

In honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the American Constitution Society today hosted an open forum to discuss current issues in combating domestic terrorism. The conference featured renowned scholars from across academia to discuss in detail the ongoing struggle between civil rights and national security as it relates the possibility of future domestic attacks by terrorist organizations and so-called homegrown “lone-wolf” terrorists. The event featured several domestic policy sessions displaying the best and brightest scholars, who met to discuss everything from “What We Know About Radicalization” to “Deterring Terrorist Threats” and even “Building Resilient Communities.”

A few hours into the event, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) appeared to deliver the event’s keynote address. Before a crowd of civil rights activists, legal scholars, and university professors, Lieberman, who currently chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, delivered his speech.

Addressing the crowd for just under half an hour, Lieberman spoke somewhat eloquently about the threats our nation has faced and overcome in the decade since the terrible events of 9/11. Unsurprisingly, Lieberman declared that we are a nation still at war; that controversial policies put in place after 9/11 have kept us safe [even if it meant giving up our freedom], and argued that America doesn’t have the luxury of debating whether or not we have overreacted in the name of promoting security.  The Senator argued that unmanned drones, the fusion of intelligence operations, and a brilliant counter terrorism strategy have keep America the dominant force for good in the world, able to seek out terrorist threats wherever they may occur and achieve military victory on a new type of battlefield. All of this was fairly typical for the Senator.

What happened next, however, was somewhat surprising, and deeply frustrating. On the brink of an election year, with the domestic debate turning away from capturing and killing Al-Queda agents to protecting Americans from “homegrown” terrorist attacks, Lieberman used the keynote speech as an opportunity to attack President Obama’s newly released plan to counter violent extremism. strategy.

The President’s plan calls for a community-based approach, which, in theory, would rely more heavily on preexisting federal programs that have engendered a better relationship with Arab Americans and American Muslims than on law enforcement to combat violent extremism. The policy rests upon the theory that those within the target community will be more likely to trust and therefore convey information to these agencies than to the FBI and DHS, which many within the community are either deeply suspicious of or outright fear.

Such agencies have over the last decade been relentless in their targeting the Arab American community–engaging in secretive intrusive, searches absent any factual predicate, turning over immigrants to the customs agencies, breaking up families, and formulating a massive database of biometric information of individuals personal data.

AAI has reserved judgment on Obama’s plan pending more details, but all indications seem to be that it is a step in the right direction. The Senator however, doesn’t see it that way.

According to Lieberman, the program is deeply flawed. In the Senator’s opinion, the President’s decision to label the problem “violent extremism” rather than “violent Islamic extremism” shows he does not understand the true nature of the threat against America. Lieberman spoke at the ACS on this point rather extensively.  He noted that this is not a battle of civilizations, but rather an ideological struggle with an extremist political ideology which seeks as its declared goal the formation of a caliphate to displace the current governments of the region. In his view, by removing the word “Islamic” from the way we discuss these new threats we deny their true nature for the sake of being politically correct. Indeed many American hold this same view. Lieberman also denounced other commonly-used administration phrasing that describes the threat as being against “Al-Qaeda and its allies” arguing that this is not an organizational war against a group or series of groups, but rather a war against a political theology separate from the religion!

Sitting there listening to the Senator speak this contradiction was glaring. If, as in the Senator’s own words, the threat is separate from the religion, why then should we include the word “Islamic” in our description of the threat? Insisting on the use of the word “Islamic” does the exact opposite - it makes this about the religion and not about a political theology. It groups all members of a given religion who may or may not share such extremist goals in with those who do, connecting them not by a perverse political goal but by their belief in a common religion.

Ultimately, if we want to truly protect national security we will need the help of all Americans, including law-abiding American Muslims whose faith should not be treated as dangerous by our political leaders. Phrasing as it turns out is important, but not in the way senator Lieberman meant. The issue is political ideologies that are dangerous because they may turn violent, not because they’re “Islamic.”

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