The Right Rediscovers Civil Liberties – For Now

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Conservative blogs erupted this week over the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) report on right wing extremism. Glenn Greenwald noted the discrepancy that these were generally supporters of Bush-era domestic spying programs. However, at the first sign the same security apparatus turned its attention to their end of the political spectrum under a Democratic president they were outraged. That in turn prompted a new round of responses, which along with the initial reactions seems to belong to one of the following categories:

Running through the commentary were complaints that those of us who have been warning about the erosion of civil liberties during the Bush years are somehow OK with this latest development. It is an easy accusation to shoot down since the very people noting the hypocrisy on the right generally pointed out their own objections to the DHS report as well:

  • Greenwald – "the DHS description of these groups seems excessively broad"
  • Andrew Sullivan – "I share the general unease about this kind of surveillance."
  • Thoreau – "I don’t really want anybody to wind up on the wrong end of an unchecked and brutal security apparatus. We all need to stick together here."

And so on. It is a strange myopia, or probably just willful blindness. The Republican rump and its supporters view this issue as a game, which explains Reynolds’ reasoning: liberals will now bear down on the right because they can. Ignoring Greenwald’s examples of Bush-initiated expansions of executive power, he just flatly asserts that the left "did" it in the 90’s, then it was the right’s turn during the Bush years, and now the left is doing it again. That his position cannot be reconciled with facts or evidence does not appear to trouble him.

Malkin’s position doesn’t square well with reality either. Even if it was true that previous DHS reports hadn’t generalized left wing movements – but see Greenwald’s updates for just such examples – the report states "lone wolves and small terrorist cells…are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States." The extremists are not organizing in a way that ALLOWS them to be so easily identified. (There is also a big difference between monitoring those who plan and engage in explicitly political murder and those, say, engaged in antiwar protesting. One might expect DHS to evaluate those threats differently.)

But the most revealing post is Maguire’s. He writes:

Andrew Sullivan chooses to miss the point and savor an "I told you so moment", exulting in his criticism of Bush’s shredding of the Constitution and expansion of the "Surveillance State". Uh huh – the problem with this DHS study is not that they are threatening extra-Constitutional surveillance and interrogation of people; it is that they are coming very close to attempting to criminalize non-violent political dissent. That is deeply problematic even if they do it with all the proper warrants.

He puts "Surveillance State" in quotes but not "Bush’s shredding of the Constitution." Is that an acknowledgement? It may be an oversight but if not it is a remarkable development. Then look at how much hair splitting is required to defend Bush’s policies but criticize Obama’s. How can he object to stifling political dissent but not the means by which it is done? Don’t warrantless wiretaps and vacuuming up data greatly facilitate suppression and make it more likely? Requirements for obtaining "all the proper warrants" in an expansive and aggrandized security system are far different than in one that is restrained. Legal requirements are not scientific quantities that can be precisely measured, but products of the environment they are created in. If you discount the idea of a burgeoning surveillance state you can’t very well turn around and complain about the lengthening shadow of Big Brother. The two are linked, and trying to compartmentalize them looks silly.

Now, the report concludes by saying DHS "will be working with its state and local partners," and that has an ominous ring to it. The devil is in the details; partnerships that involve deployment of the military or fusion centers, for example, should be strenuously opposed. And it is gratifying to see some on the right finally having their "come to Jesus" moment, whatever the reason. Maybe now we can work together to roll back some of the worst civil liberties encroachments. If we are lucky we will get those safeguards in place before the next Republican is sworn in as president and the right reverts to its erstwhile position.

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