Democrats need to stop playing politics with the terror watch list

In the wake of the Paris attacks, Republicans have come out with a number of mind-boggling proposals for how to prevent such events from transpiring in the United States. These have included, but are not limited to:

And so on. As each one of these proposals has been offered up by an increasingly frantic Republican field, progressives have been right to be outraged. Not only would none of the above proposals prevent a Paris-style attack, in which citizens of the host country use homemade and (in the US) legally-purchased weapons to attack large public gatherings, but many of them would also constitute gross violations of our civil liberties.

However, Republicans have not been alone in making cynical proposals in response to the attacks that would exploit anti-Muslim sentiments to restrict civil liberties. Democrats in Congress, with at least one Republican co-sponsor in New York Congressman Peter King, are pushing a bill that would prohibit anyone on the FBI’s Terror Watch List from buying a gun, highlighting a Government Accountability Office report showing that over 2,000 people on the list legally purchased guns between 2004 and 2014. The Bush administration supported a similar bill in 2007. Both bills were immediately scuttled by the NRA.

Not only is this bad policy, it isn’t even good politics. Rather than driving a wedge between NRA absolutists and foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party, they’ve cross-pressured liberals into deciding whether proving a symbolic point on gun control — See? These gun nuts are so gun-nutty they won’t even keep TERRORISTS from having guns! — is more important than deconstructing anti-Muslim bigotry both in government policy and our broader culture.

One would think that self-described progressives wouldn’t need a refresher on exactly how much of a civil liberties nightmare the terror watch list has been since its inception in 2003. But here we go:

Muslim man via Shutterstock

A Muslim man who could have been added to the watch list for tweeting a joke about posing for Shutterstock

You don’t need to do anything specific to get on the terror watch list. The FBI reads your tweets, tracks where you travel and even watches how you walk — all of which can be used to nominate you for placement on the watch list. Nominations are rarely rejected, and probable cause of committing an actual crime is almost never considered. What’s more, once you’re on the list, there’s no way to challenge your placement — you usually can’t even find out why you were placed on the list. Oh, and your friends and family members could get added to the list simply because you’re on it, because why not?

Those who are on the terror watch list aren’t even really suspected of plotting terror attacks, to say nothing of having been charged with actual crimes. They’re simply people the government has at some point decided to flag because of probably-unrelated actions that they or their family member did — most likely years ago. The ACLU estimates that well over a million citizens are currently on the watch list. The Intercept reported that the FBI processed 468,749 nominations for the watch list in 2013 alone — and again, nominations are rarely rejected. In short, the net is cast as wide as possible.

The terror watch list was created in post-9/11 hysteria, and was (rightly) decried by progressives at the time as being little more than a legally neutral way for the government to make it harder for brown people to get on airplanes in order to give the rest of the country the illusion of safety — exactly what we’ve spent the last week calling conservatives out for. So while those on the right are up in arms (figuratively, for now) over the prospect of the terror watch list being used by President Obama as a means of taking away their guns, they aren’t exactly wrong to point out that restricting gun access based on the unverifiable and unchallengeable suspicion of thoughtcrime ten years ago is a bad road to go down. As the National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke put it:

You will note, I hope, that [Harry] Reid, [Chuck] Schumer, [Reid’s Deputy Chief of Staff Adam] Jentleson, and co. are not proposing to place restrictions on those who have been “accused,” “charged,” or “convicted,” but upon those who are “suspected.” They are not referring to those who are working their way through the judicial system, but to those who remain outside of it. They are not seeking to limit the rights of those who are out on bail or awaiting trial, but those who have not so much as been handcuffed. Loudly and proudly, they are arguing in favor of removing fundamental rights from anyone whose name has been written down on a list. Because they hope to confuse the public, their talk is peppered with references to “Paris-style” “assault” rifles and “automatic” weapons. But this is a red herring: Their proposal applies equally to guns of all types, not just those that give Shannon Watts and Diane Feinstein the willies.

Cooke is concerned with restrictions on gun rights, but the point can be applied to civil liberties more generally. As a matter of fact, it’s a decent argument in favor of getting rid of the watch list entirely. To be clear, Cooke’s readers would lose their gun-clutching minds if President Obama proposed doing so, or even if he called for reforming the watch list so that it was harder to be placed on it and easier to challenge your placement. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a point: This watch list in its current form shouldn’t be used for much of anything. If that happens to include restricting gun purchases, then so be it.

At the end of the day, it’s odd, to say the least, that the same self-described progressives who say they’re concerned about attempts by our government to demonize Muslims and erode civil liberties at the same time now want to take the prime example of that combination seriously as a counterterrorism tool. By pushing the idea, they’re granting the watch list legitimacy that it never deserved.

All for the sake of saying toldyaso to the NRA.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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