Congressional Democrats took the step of conducting a sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives this week, a public relations stunt they believed would pressure Republicans to hold votes on a bill to ban gun sales to those on the terror watch list.
It was a deeply cynical maneuver that undermined the power and spectacle of a sit-in, which has always been a tool to argue for and advance civil rights. In this case, Congressional Democrats were fighting for the opposite. Their goal was to strip away a Constitutional right from certain Americans who have been put on a secretive, deeply flawed watch list with no due process protection. The Second Amendment, which explicitly grants Americans the right to own a firearm? Pshaw, says the protestors. Or how about the Fifth Amendment, which says that no person shall be “deprived of live, liberty or property, without due process?” Whatever, say the critics.
It’s important to point out what an enormous reversal this is for the intellectual left. Here’s what the New York Times had to say in a 2014 editorial titled “Terror Watch Lists Run Amok”:
After eight years of confounding litigation and coordinated intransigence, the Justice Department this week grudgingly informed Rahinah Ibrahim, a Malaysian architecture professor, that she was no longer on the federal government’s vastly overbroad no-fly list.
How can Dr. Ibrahim be a terrorist and not be a threat at the same time? Welcome to the shadowy, self-contradictory world of American terror watch lists, which operate under a veil of secrecy so thick that it is virtually impossible to pierce it when mistakes are made. A 2007 audit found that more than half of the 71,000 names then on the no-fly list were wrongly included.
“Coordinated intransigence,” “vastly over broad,” “shadowy, self-contradictory,” “a veil of secrecy so thick that it is virtually impossible to pierce.” These are the descriptors of the list that Democrats decided to take a stand for this week.
If anything, the list is actually deserving of far more scorn than the New York Times heaped upon it. An investigative report by The Intercept lifted the curtain on the government’s heretofore secret rules for putting people on the terrorist database.
Most damningly, they found numerous loopholes for putting people onto the watchlist in the absence of even reasonable suspicion (an already low evidentiary standard), including having a vaguely defined “possible nexus” to terrorism, but for whom there is not enough “derogatory information.” And if that reads like a bunch of wishy-washy gobbledygook that can mean whatever a particular bureaucrat wants it to mean then you’re right. After all, there’s a reason that the second most common city for “known or suspected terrorists” is Dearborn, Michigan, home to a large Muslim population.
But there’s even a loophole to the loophole that gives White House officials the unilateral authority to put entire “categories of people” onto restrictive lists, such as the no-fly list.
The Intercept also highlighted the lack of meaningful checks and balances built into the nominating process, pointing out that of the 468,749 nominations in 2013, only 4,915 were rejected, in no small part because the nominations are “presumptively valid.”
Perhaps that explains the utter ridiculousness of some of the people who have either been mistakenly placed on a terror watch list, or their name resembled someone on the list. Consider that U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy was banned from getting on a plane because his name was similar to someone that appeared on the list. Or that Nelson Mandela, as late as 2008, was on a terrorism watch list because the U.S. adopted South Africa’s list. Or that Mikey Hicks, a cub scout, has been aggressively frisked since he was 2 years old because his name resembles a person on the list. Or, perhaps most ironically of all, Rep. John Lewis, who led the Congressional sit-in, had his name placed on the watchlist, which led him to write a letter to the Department of Homeland Security arguing that the list “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations.”
Have Democrats completely changed their minds about the problematic nature of the terror watch list and its impact on civil rights? Or did they just seek an exploitable political opportunity following the Orlando tragedy that allowed them to accomplish their gun control goals? I have a, shall we say reasonable suspicion as to what the answer is.