Oh, wait. Make that: Is there any real point in celebrating that Democrats took Congress?
Before answering, join me in a sobering parlor game. Read the following quotation from the head of the pro-civil liberties National Lawyers Guild. Then guess whose deeds made this person fret.
"Adding the term 'terrorist' to identify activists in a recognizable civic group that exploits the tragedies that accompany real terrorist action," said Heidi Boghosian. "We think that the wealth and pressure of big business and corporations has pushed this through, and it's an example of corporate interests working against civic rights."
Is George Bush II again rifling through our phone records, or conjuring a new Patriot Act?
Has his Republican administration again sicced the FBI on library patrons?
No. The latest federal assault on civil liberties is a San Francisco Democratic creation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein just finished ensuring the success of a bill that expands the federal government definition of "terrorism" to mean an act of protest that reduces the profits of a corporation, its suppliers, or partners.
Feinstein co-sponsored the just-passed Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which claims to provide law enforcement tools needed to go after animal rights extremists who vandalize research facilities. But the measure does very little to advance law enforcement's pursuit of loony PETA brigands. Instead, it goes a long way toward making ordinary Americans rightfully nervous about boycotting, picketing, blogging, investigating, or otherwise righteously beleaguering private companies whose actions they disagree with.
"The language of this legislation was too broad and vague, and could be interpreted to infringe upon lawful practices, such as protest, whistleblowing, or boycotts," said Michael Markarian, executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States a nonbrigand organization if there ever were one.
"Here is an assault on civil liberties that's upfront and blatant labeling activists as terrorists. Yet this passed without hardly any scrutiny. It was stunning how easily this went through. And in my mind it's one of the most egregious civil liberties abuses America has seen," adds Will Potter, author of Greenisthenewred.com, a blog dedicated to examining how anti-terrorism has been used as a pretext for cracking down on activism.
I'm usually quick to smirk at those who break into universities to set the lab rats free. And I'm not asking readers to return to the year-2000-era of magical thinking, when it was fashionable to say Democrats and Republicans were indistinguishable, then to support Ralph Nader's spoiler campaign.
But it's worth taking a close look at Feinstein's awful bill, how it may not have succeeded without her having added her Democrat's (and thus "bipartisan") imprimatur, and how it slipped through the House of Representatives after the congressional elections with nary a Democrat raising a peep.
Once we've done that, let's get to keeping our eyes on the new Congress, in hopes it doesn't turn out as bad as the old one.
I first discovered Feinstein's bill running across a press release from the senator, in which she "hailed the House of Representatives' passage of bipartisan legislation that will enhance the effectiveness of the U.S. Department of Justice's ability to prosecute animal rights extremists who cross the line and utilize violence and terroristic threats, while expressly preserving the First Amendment rights of animal rights activists to peacefully protest and boycott lawfully," the release said.
Feinstein's office wasn't able to roust anyone to comment in advance of my pre-Thanksgiving deadline. But the release makes her views clear.
Previous efforts to advance such a new animal "terrorism" bill stalled before Feinstein's sponsorship turned the latest incarnation into a "bipartisan" effort. On Nov. 13, before much of the House of Representatives had returned following mid-term elections, a version of the bill was heard before a near-empty chamber, and then passed the House unanimously. At press time, the bill awaited President Bush's signature.
Feinstein cites protesters' harassment of researchers who use animals at UC San Francisco and at Chiron Corporation in Emeryville, and says the school has had to spend millions on security; the new bill, the release notes, will "expand current law to address violent tactics used by animal rights extremists to frighten law-abiding citizens away from their work."
The thing is, however, that violence, threats, vandalism, and harassing assaults of the sort described by Feinstein are already illegal. Her bill criminalizes ordinary protest activities that weren't illegal before.
As a case in point, see the benchmark prosecution under the previous, milder, narrower version of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, in which six activists were jailed a week before Thanksgiving for sentences ranging from three to six years for running a Web site that supported a campaign against a New Jersey laboratory called Huntington Life Sciences that tests pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and dyes on animals. It was the first trial and conviction under the previous Act. An international campaign against the lab's British parent company, which had been the subject of a U.K. documentary on animal cruelty, had brought the company to the edge of bankruptcy.
UC Hastings College of the Law student Andrea Lindsay, an animal rights activist who serves as spokeswoman for the group Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty, says the prosecution relied on a 1992 version of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act to go after activists who ran an anti-Huntington Web site, after law enforcement had failed to catch the actual criminals who had made threats and committed vandalism. "They were basically accused of a conspiracy to operate a Web site that reported on the activities of others," Lindsay said.
Albeit, those activities were reprehensible: They included threats and harassment of company officials, the kind of tactics made famous by the most rabid anti-abortion activists.
Law enforcement failed to catch violent animal rights activists and charge them with the crimes they committed. So they jailed the Web propagandists who supported them.
The new Act calls for more lengthy sentences for such activity, and punishes activists whose protests harm "tertiary targets," or suppliers and other business partners of target companies. It includes language saying that the new bill will not infringe on ordinary social protest activities such as boycotts or picketing.
Opponents of the bill say, however, that just by stating that it will be enforced in a way that respects constitutional protections of free speech and protest doesn't make it so. The law's very premise, they say, that protest that harms a company's bottom line should be construed as a type of terrorism, is a frightening prospect for free speech.
"The function of civil disobedience and a boycott are to cause loss of profits in order to get a message out. So we don't think their distinctions make a difference," says Boghosian, the Lawyers Guild director.
Most menacing, in my view, was Feinstein's statement on Nov. 13 crowing about House passage of legislation whose Senate version she sponsored. "We can no longer tolerate criminally based activism regardless of the cause it allegedly advances," Feinstein said. "This is terrorism and it must be stopped."
Indeed, there are all sorts of social causes environmentalism, labor rights, equal rights for women, rights for immigrants; protests against development and automobile use, and for consumers' rights whose supporters might use tactics that might harm a company's bottom line.
"We're an easy group of people to pull this over on, and an easy group for the rest of the leftist community to ignore," says Lindsay, the spokeswoman for the jailed animal rights activists. "I definitely think this Act is a model for other social movements. The fact that they're calling activist activity as terrorism, well, that will of course carry over to other social groups."