Let’s begin with one critical fact: the ACLU has always defended, and still does defend, the free speech rights of the most marginalized left-wing activists, from Communists and atheists, to hard-core war opponents and pacifists, and has taken up numerous free speech causes supported by many on the left and loathed by the right, including defending the rights of Muslim extremists and even NAMBLA. That’s true of any consistent civil liberties advocate: we defend the rights of those with views we hate in order to strengthen our defense of the rights of those who are most marginalized and vulnerable in society.
Photo: Emily Molli/NurPhoto/Sipa/AP
EACH TIME HORRIFIC political violence is perpetrated that is deemed to be terrorism, a search is immediately conducted for culprits to blame other than those who actually perpetrated the violence or endorsed the group responsible for it. It’s usually only a matter of hours before the attack is exploited to declare one’s own political views vindicated, and to depict one’s political adversaries as responsible for, if not complicit in, the violence. Often accompanying this search for villains is a list of core civil liberties that we’re told ought to be curtailed in the name of preventing similar acts of violence in the future.
All of this typically happens before much of anything is known about the killer, his actual inspirations, his mental health, or his associations. In the aftermath of the widespread horror such violence naturally produces, the easiest target for these guilt-by-association tactics are those who have advocated for the legal rights of the group of which the individual attacker is a member and/or those who have defended the legal right to express the opinions in the name of which the attack was carried out.
These tactics are most familiar when a Muslim perpetrates violence within a western city, aimed at westerners. Before anything is known about the attacker other than his religious identity, the violence is instantly declared to be terrorism. Then the search is quickly launched to find anyone who can be said to be responsible for the violence by virtue of having “encouraged” or “enabled” Islamic extremism, often by doing nothing more than having defended the legal rights of the group that is being blamed for the attack.
At the top of the blame list one always finds a wide range of imams who preach Islam – even those who never in their lives advocated violence of any kind – as well as activists who defend Muslims from bigotry and persecution. But also prominently featured in this vilification game are legal groups, such as the Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) and the ACLU, that defend the free speech rights and other civil liberties of Muslims to be free of state persecution and suppression. Recently, even social platforms that allow Muslims to express themselves without state censorship are said to be “complicit.”
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Linking CAIR to terrorist attacks because of their civil liberties work is commonplace among the Islamophobic right. The ACLU – which has defended accused Al Qaeda terrorists, tried to prevent the Obama administration from killing Anwar al-Awlaki without due process, and opposed the criminal prosecution of Muslim extremists on free speech grounds – is constantly vilified as terrorist enablers by the anti-Muslim right as a result of that civil liberties advocacy. And now, each time there’s a new attack, the UK Government routinely accuses Facebook and other social media companies of “aiding and abetting” ISIS and Al Qaeda because of its refusal to obey UK Government orders about which views should be censored from the site.
That anyone who defends the legal rights of terrorists or gives them a platform is culpable for the violence they commit has been standard neoconservative and far right cant for decades. One of the most odious examples came from 2009 when a new group started by Bill Kristol and Lynne Cheney – calling itself “Keep America Safe” – produced ads strongly implying that Obama DOJ lawyers who defended accused Al Qaeda suspects were supporters of jihadist violence against the U.S.:
Demonizing lawyers and civil liberties advocates by depicting them as “complicit” in the heinous acts of their clients is a long-standing scam that is not confined to the U.S. The Belgian lawyer who represented one of the Muslim attackers in Paris, Sven Mary, said “he had suffered physical and verbal attacks and his daughters had even needed a police escort to school.”
Needless to say, none of these legal organizations or individual lawyers condone violence. They all vehemently oppose the ideology and worldview in the name of which this violence is committed. Yet they are all blamed for the violence and accused of complicity in it because they defend the free speech rights and civil liberties of people who express views in the name of which violence is committed.
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