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Knowing a Terrorist When You See One

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Discussing the Wikileaks disclosures last week, New York Congressman Peter King urged Attorney General Eric Holder to designate the organization as a “foreign terrorist organization,” saying it “posed a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States.” A chorus was struck up almost immediately, with commentators and politicians following up on King’s demand.

In fact, the term “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) is established in section 219 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which empowers the Secretary of State (not the attorney general) to apply that label to foreign organizations, with immediate and severe consequences for those so labeled and those who communicate or deal with them in any way. The Secretary of State does not have carte blanche in this process. To qualify as an FTO, an organization must have been engaged in “terrorist activity” or “terrorism,” which are defined to include multiple acts of violence threatening U.S. persons or the national security of the United States. An organization cannot plausibly qualify as a “terrorist organization” simply by publishing documents that embarrass the government or particular politicians.

Pete King’s idea, though, is hardly original. Over the last decade the world has witnessed an explosion of cases in which the term “terrorist” has been applied to domestic political adversaries, journalists, lawyers, and others who present governments and hyperventilating politicians with unpleasant facts. Today the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights has published a book entitled Blacklisted that meticulously documents this process, with a focus on abuse of the “terrorist” label in Europe. In the post 9/11 period, governments around the world increasingly used the term “terrorist” to muzzle people—insuring that they are denied access to the media, are not allowed to present challenges in court, and effectively disappear from the political stage. The worst abusers by far are authoritarian governments (Zimbabwe and Burma are good examples) that try to pin this label on democracy and human rights advocates. But this study also lays much blame at the feet of the United Nations, which has often allowed individual nations to call “terrorists” whomever they please.

As U.N. rapporteur Martin Scheinen points out in his foreword to the book, “There is a fundamental need for a broader public debate concerning the future of terrorist listings.” Listing foreign terrorist organizations is a powerful tool in the arsenal against terrorism, but it is also the subject of a great deal of official chicanery. If it is to be used effectively, then the international community, with the United States at the lead, has to focus more attention on the sort of conduct which will qualify a group as “terrorist.” Violence, particularly targeting innocent civilians indiscriminately, is an essential element of the definition. A government’s determination that its critics or political adversaries are “terrorists” must be subject to review by courts on the facts involving objective criteria. And the media and the public must be on the guard against political rhetoric that seeks to turn the concept of “terrorist organization” into a weapon against democracy itself.

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