Although John McCain and Sarah Palin have toned down their rhetoric when it comes to associating Barack Obama with “domestic terrorist” Bill Ayers, the damage may already be done -- and not just to Obama's reputation.

After hearing Palin repeatedly accuse Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” many McCain supporters seem to believe that Obama is a genuine terrorist, and some fanatics are calling for him to be killed.

As disconcerting as that heated rhetoric may be, what may be more damaging to the country is the message that the McCain campaign is sending by vilifying Obama’s slight relationship with someone who decades ago belonged to a radical antiwar organization.

While the label of “terrorist” is perhaps fitting for the Weather Underground, which carried out bombings of U.S. government targets in the early 1970s, the idea of condemning Obama for having crossed paths with someone decades after the person was involved in such a group should send chills down everyone’s spine.

After all, if Obama is being branded a “terrorist sympathizer” for having a very limited relationship with Ayers on an issue such as education – wholly unrelated to the context of Ayers’s controversial past actions – the message is clear to all Americans that they must be extremely careful with whom they associate, even casually.

This is even more the case today, when the word “terrorist” is tossed around loosely or applied in an ideological way that strips it of its classic meaning – violence directed against civilians to achieve some political end.

In recent years, the Bush administration has used “terrorist” as a kind of geopolitical curse word, rather than a legally defined term. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, the Bush administration has applied the word “terrorist” to local insurgents battling U.S. troops, even if there are no attacks on civilians.

However, in other cases, the “terrorist” label is hotly resisted even when a person’s violence is directed against civilians – if the violence is politically in sync with the Bush administration’s interests.

So, when the question is whether to deport right-wing Cuban terrorist Luis Posada Carriles to Venezuela to face charges for the in-air bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976 (a classic act of terrorism that killed 73 people), the Bush administration finds any number of reasons why Posada must be allowed to live safely in the United States.

Suddenly the notion of “harboring terrorists,” which President George W. Bush famously declared to be adequate grounds for invading a country anywhere in the world, doesn’t seem so bad – when his administration is doing the harboring.

Peaceful ‘Terrorists’

Yet, while well-connected “terrorists” like Posada get a pass, the Bush administration has extended the definition of “terrorist” – at least the bad kind that isn’t in line with its political interests – to cover some individuals who engage in only peaceful resistance.

Right now, there are more than 540,000 names on the U.S. government’s “terrorist watch list.” Some are clearly deserving of the government’s interest, but others are there by mistake (in 2007, for instance, nearly 23,700 individuals’ names were removed from the database when it was determined they were improperly included).

But the big question is how many people may be included on the watch lists for purely political reasons, such as speaking out against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, ever since 9/11, opponents of U.S. military policy have been loosely accused of aiding terrorism and branded as “threats” by the U.S. government.

The rationale for singling out supposedly disloyal Americans was once articulated by Attorney General John Ashcroft, who in the very early days of the “war on terror” made it clear that post-9/11 was no time to criticize the Bush administration over curtailment of democratic freedoms at home.

The attorney general admonished those who fret over “the phantoms of lost liberty” because those who would make such complaints only serve to “aid terrorists – for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve.” These signs of dissent “give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends,” Ashcroft said at a congressional hearing in December 2001.

Ashcroft’s statement was in response to criticism of the USA Patriot Act which expanded police powers for the FBI and redefined terrorism in a way that some found troubling. Section 801 of the law defines terrorism as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the U.S. or any state; [and] (B) appear to be intended (i) to influence policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.”

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Bar Association objected to this definition, particularly the prohibition against seeking to influence government policy by “intimidation.” The definition is so vague and so subjective that virtually any act of civil disobedience or confrontational protest could fit under it, the critics said.

The fears were compounded in 2002 when Ashcroft loosened restrictions that were put on the FBI after the COINTELPRO political-spying scandal of the 1970s.

Under the new Ashcroft guidelines, in order to launch an investigation of a political or religious organization, the FBI must only have a reasonable indication that “two or more persons are engaged in an enterprise for the purpose of … furthering political or social goals wholly or in part through activities that involve force or violence and a violation of federal criminal law.”

At the time, some argued that these loosened guidelines could lead to increased surveillance of legitimate organizations engaged in nonviolent protest activities, and the equation of dissent with terrorism. Indeed, soon there were indications that these fears were well-founded.

Domestic Surveillance

In 2003, the FBI sent a memorandum to local law enforcement agencies before planned demonstrations against the war in Iraq. The memo detailed protesters’ tactics and analyzed activities such as the recruitment of protesters over the Internet.

The FBI instructed local law enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for “possible indicators of protest activity and report any potentially illegal acts to the nearest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

Then, prior to the 2004 Democratic and Republican national conventions, the JTTF raided the homes of activists who were organizing demonstrations, while FBI agents in Missouri, Kansas and Colorado spied on and interrogated activists.

One target of these visits, Sarah Bardwell of Denver, Colorado, said, “The message I took from it was that they were trying to intimidate us into not going to any protests and to let us know that, ‘hey, we’re watching you.’” [NYT, Aug. 16, 2004]

The FBI also began collecting thousands of pages of internal documents on civil rights and antiwar groups including the ACLU, Greenpeace and United for Peace and Justice. Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator for UFPJ, said that she was particularly concerned that the FBI’s counterterrorism division was discussing the coalition’s operations.

“We always assumed the FBI was monitoring us, but to see the counterterrorism people looking at us like this is pretty jarring,” Cagan said.

Further revelations of the government improperly classifying antiwar groups as terrorist threats continued to pour out. In December 2005, for example, NBC News revealed the existence of a secret 400-page Pentagon document listing 1,500 “suspicious incidents” over a 10-month period, including dozens of small antiwar demonstrations that were classified as a “threat.”

More recently, the state of Maryland notified dozens of nonviolent activists that they were wrongfully labeled as terrorists in the federal terrorism database. Among those notified were Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, two nuns who have spent their entire lives protesting nuclear weapons and war through nonviolent acts of civil disobedience.

“To be labeled a terrorist is really very hard to hear and to accept when your whole life has been one of loving nonviolence,” Platte said. “Does civil dissent and civil unrest mean that people are going to be labeled as terrorists?”

Unfortunately, it increasingly appears that the answer is “yes.”

‘Furthering Terrorism’

Perhaps the clearest indicator of how the Bush administration perceives antiwar dissenters was the treatment of activists involved with protests at the Republican National Convention in August.

Over several days of the convention, primarily peaceful Americans protesting the Republican agenda were targeted by aggressive police decked out in full riot gear and armed with Tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas.

An activist convergence center was raided, as were the homes of several protest organizers, and demonstrators were attacked, manhandled and arrested. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Storm Troopers at the RNC.”]

But what may be most jarring has been the treatment of the so-called RNC 8, who were accused of being leaders of an anti-authoritarian activist group called the RNC Welcoming Committee. On day three of the convention, these eight activists were formally charged with “Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism,” a felony.

The eight are being prosecuted under a 2002 Minnesota state law and now face over seven years in prison under the terrorism enhancement charge, with the only evidence against them apparently the testimony of police who infiltrated their organization.

But as the National Lawyers Guild points out, “The criminal complaints filed by the Ramsey County Attorney do not allege that any of the defendants personally have engaged in any act of violence or damage to property. The complaints list all of [the] alleged violations of law during the last few days of the RNC … and seek to hold the eight defendants responsible for acts committed by other individuals.”

Under the 2002 state law, a crime is considered to “further terrorism” if it is “intended” to “terrorize, intimidate, or coerce a considerable number of members of the public in addition to the direct victims of the act.”

If accused of “furthering terrorism,” individuals face a 50 percent increase in the maximum penalty they would receive for committing similar crimes (such as vandalism) that are not “intended” to “coerce” the public.

In an open letter, the RNC 8 called their arrests “preemptive,” and challenged the legal notion of “conspiracy.” These arrests targeted “known organizers in an attempt to derail anti-RNC protests before the convention had even begun,” the RNC 8 wrote.

“Conspiracy charges expand upon the traditional notion of crime,” the group continued. “Instead of condemning action, the very concept of conspiracy criminalizes thought and camaraderie, the development of relationships, the willingness to hope that our world might change and the realization that we can be agents of that change.”

It could also be said that by adding the charge of terrorism to the criminal complaint, the government is expanding the notion of what constitutes a terrorist far beyond the image of bearded Islamic fanatics intent on killing Americans. Now, it appears, anyone who has ever belonged to an antiwar group could be considered a terrorist as well.

However, again, double standards prevail. In November 2000, for instance, Republican rioters were dispatched from Washington to Florida and used physical intimidation to stop the counting of votes in Miami.

As it turned out, this so-called “Brooks Brothers Riot” was sponsored by the Bush-Cheney campaign, but no legal action was taken against the rioters nor those who paid their bills, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Some of the rioters later were rewarded with senior jobs in the Bush administration. [For details, see our book, Neck Deep.]

But with the new attempt by McCain and Palin to portray Obama as a “terrorist sympathizer” for simply knowing someone who once engaged in what Obama called “detestable acts 40 years ago when I was eight years old,” the bar has been lowered even further – at least for those not in Republican favor.

This smearing of Obama is a kind of time-traveler version of Joe McCarthy’s guilt by association. It is no longer just a matter of being associated with someone when they do something bad; you’re now at fault for knowing someone even if their bad deed was in the distant past and in an entirely different context.

Those who may have at one time served on a board of directors with someone who may have belonged to an antiwar group – either violent or pacifist – are now suspect as well. With this in mind, how many of us may be wondering if we might be “palling around with terrorists” without even knowing it?

Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.

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