Below is my column in The Hill on a growing tendency to label opposing views as terrorism in our age of rage. Democratic activists have labeled ICE as a “terrorist organization” while Republicans use that term for Antifa. It is also a way to dismiss opposing views as extremism with no need to listen, let alone respond. With the escalation of such rhetoric, millions of Americans are being portrayed as terrorists – a trend that robs the term of any real meaning. Yet, numerous officials, including the Board of Supervisors, in San Francisco supported the ridiculous resolution declaring the NRA to be a “domestic terrorist organization” and, by extension, its five million members domestic terrorists. It is not enough to disagree over the meaning of an individual right, the other side must now be little better than ISIS for disagreeing with you.
Here is the column:
It is not everyday that a public official uncovers more than five million terrorists living in the United States, including many working in some of the highest offices of the land. Yet, San Francisco District Two Supervisor Catherine Stefani managed to achieve precisely that this week, when the city board of supervisors passed her resolution declaring the National Rifle Association to be a domestic terrorist organization.
For Stefani and other board members, it is not enough to disagree with gun rights advocates. They must be declared terrorists. Otherwise, this would be a mere political disagreement. The San Francisco resolution encourages cities, states, and the federal government to follow suit. It states that NRA terrorism includes spreading “propaganda” and arming “those individuals who would and have committed acts of terrorism.”
The resolution follows a declaration from New York Attorney General Letitia James in launching an investigation of the NRA which she previously declared to be not a “charitable organization” but a “terrorist organization.” Of course, the NRA promotes the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed as the basis of an individual constitutional right to bear arms. Thus, San Francisco is declaring that advocacy of a constitutional right is akin to being an arm of the Islamic State.
For her part, Stefani expressed nothing but glee in declaring those on the other side of the gun debate to be terrorists. “The NRA has it coming to them. I will do everything I possibly can to call them out on what they are, which is a domestic terrorist organization,” she said. For the other supervisors, voting against the declaration might have risked being accused of giving material support to a terrorist organization.
The resolution is the very definition of demagoguery. It also is a sign of our time as the perfect resolution for the age of rage. Many people of good faith have criticized the NRA for years, while the organization has opposed many reasonable limits on gun ownership and has painted anyone on the other side as enemies of freedom and liberty.
Yet, it is not uncommon for organizations advocating for individual rights to be “extreme” in their support for that right. NARAL is a pro-choice organization opposing virtually any limit on the right of women to secure abortions, including supporting “partial birth abortion” which most Americans oppose. Environmental groups like Greenpeace oppose most measures that undermine the environment. PETA opposes almost any use of animals, even calling for a robotic “Punxsutawney Phil” groundhog.
Most advocacy groups follow the view of Barry Goldwater that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Such advocacy is no act of terrorism. In politics these days, however, it is not enough to disagree. You must condemn the very act of speaking or advocating as a virtual crime. That way, you relieve yourself of any responsibility to listen or respond to an opposing view. Many academics and advocates now believe they can stop people from speaking by declaring them to be racists or terrorists.
At the University of California at Santa Barbara, feminist studies associate professor Mireille Miller Young criminally assaulted pro-life advocates on campus, and later pleaded guilty to the crime. She was defended by faculty and students, including many who said she was “triggered” by a pro-life display and that pro-life advocates were “terrorists” who did not deserve free speech. The university refused to suspend or fire her, who has since been celebrated as a leader in feminist activism.
It is now routine for many faculty and students on college campuses across the country to prevent others from speaking by claiming they are acting to stop violent or racist speech. Such declarations are incredibly liberating in that you are no longer confined by notions of free speech.
Indeed, Antifa is dedicated to defeating free speech. Dartmouth University professor Mark Bray, author of a handbook on Antifa, explained, “At the heart of the anti-fascist outlook is a rejection of the classical liberal phrase” that “says I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He defined anti-fascists as “illiberals” who reject the notion that far right views deserve to “coexist” with opposing views. The goal of Antifa is not to coexist but “to end their politics.”
As someone who has spent a lifetime advocating for free speech, I have long denounced Antifa as a despicable organization. But I was also one of the first to object to President Trump supporting the declaration of Antifa a domestic terrorist organization. That is the problem with free speech. You often have to fight for those who least deserve it, like an organization dedicated to denying it to others. There is no question here that Antifa supporters regularly engage in violent acts, but that does not mean it is a terrorist organization, any more than environmental groups are terrorist organizations when their members engage in such raging acts.
Likewise, many people applauded Democratic candidate and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg after he called for all groups deemed “white nationalist” to be declared domestic terrorists. Columnist Derek Beres explained that “such a label also denies another related idea, manifest destiny, which, like American exceptionalism, states that America has a mandate to change the world. By calling Americans terrorists, we can identify the actual root of racial and nationalist tension on our soil.”
So it is that easy. You simply declare whole groups to be terrorists, and you effectively criminalize their “related ideas.” The counterparts to Stefani in the pro-life community could declare pro-choice organizations to be terrorist organizations that kill the unborn, while Texas could declare vegan advocates to be terrorists for spreading “propaganda” against meat. After all, San Francisco declared five million Americans to be terrorists, so what about the other 322 million citizens in this nation?
The question is what terrorism ultimately means if everyone is declared a terrorist. That answer can be found in a scene from the George Orwell novel “1984,” when O’Brien is torturing the hero Winston in the Ministry of Love. O’Brien explains to Winston, “The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
Yes, I am beginning to understand. This is all about the object of power.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.