Frank Rich to Tom Coburn: Stop Scaring Peace-Loving People with Phantoms of Lost Liberty


Frank Rich, writing this weekend about the purportedly grave threat of right-wing violence, turns his attention to the mid-'90s debate about the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act:

[L]ast Sunday, when asked by David Gregory on "Meet the Press" if he was troubled by current threats of "violence against the government," [Sen. Tom] Coburn blamed not the nuts but the government.

"Well, I'm troubled any time when we stop having confidence in our government," the senator said, "but we've earned it."

Coburn is nothing if not consistent. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, he was part of a House contingent that helped delay and soften an antiterrorism bill. This cohort even tried to strip out a provision blocking domestic fund-raising by foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas. Why? The far right, in league with the National Rifle Association, was angry at the federal government for aggressively policing America's self-appointed militias.

Needless to say, a provision about foreign organizations would have no effect on any American militias. The reason the ACLU and other "far right" groups raised a stink about that measure was because they were afraid it would criminalize too much. For an example of their concerns, read David Kopel and Joseph Olson's old warning that

One important distinction between the Clinton and Dole bills was that the Dole bill created an explicit exception to the "material support" statute: "'Material support'…does not include humanitarian assistance to persons not directly involved in such violations." Thus, under the Dole approach, sending a Christmas food package to an I.R.A. or A.N.C. prisoner would constitute material support, but giving money to a fund that assisted the orphaned children of I.R.A. or A.N.C. members would not. The final legislation did not include the proposed Dole exception.

Thus, under the new terrorism bill, a donor to the I.R.A. orphanage would be a federal felon, subject to ten years in prison, as would be a person who spent five dollars to attend a 1980s speech of a visiting lecturer from the African National Congress. If the "material support" language had been law in the early 1980s, persons who gave money to church relief groups in El Salvador and Nicaragua, which opposed American policy in Central America, could have been labeled "terrorist." When pressed about this problem at Congressional hearings, a Clinton administration spokesperson acknowledged that minor support for the A.N.C.'s peaceful activities could have been felonized, but that the American people should simply trust the President not to abuse the immense power which President Clinton was requesting.

Thanks to all that "far right" opposition, many of the worst elements of the 1996 law were removed. (Or, if you prefer Frank Rich's terminology, the bill was "softened.") The excised ideas returned in 2001 with the USA PATRIOT Act, at a time when Bush officials were harshly denouncing civil libertarians. Here's how one columnist described the administration's attitudes at the time:

It's no longer just politically incorrect to criticize George W. Bush or anyone in his administration these days—now it's treason.

John Ashcroft, testifying before the Senate on Thursday, declared that those who challenge his wisdom "only aid terrorists" and will "give ammunition to America's enemies." Tough words. They make you wonder what the guy who's charged with helping us whip Al Qaeda is afraid of. The only prominent traitors in sight are the usual civil-liberties watchdogs and a milquetoast senator or two barely known beyond the Beltway and their own constituencies. Polls find the public squarely on the attorney general's side, and even the few pundits who knock him are ridiculed by their journalistic colleagues as hysterics so busy fussing about civil liberties that they forget "there's a war going on."

As you've probably guessed, the columnist in question was Frank Rich. He didn't seem to approve of such rhetoric back then, but maybe I was misreading him—his latest effort sounds like an Ashcroft homage. Denouncing "Coburn's implicit rationalization for far-right fanatics," Rich writes:

In a 1996 floor speech, Coburn conceded that "terrorism obviously poses a serious threat," but then went on to explain that the nation had worse threats to worry about: "There is a far greater fear that is present in this country, and that is fear of our own government." As his remarks on "Meet the Press" last week demonstrated, the subsequent intervention of 9/11 has not changed his worldview.

Did you ever expect to see Frank Rich accusing his enemies of having a 9/10 mentality? I hear Sean Hannity might run for president in 2012. Maybe he should apply for a job at The New York Times instead.