The Slippery Definition of Extremism

Americans are once again hearing of the perils of extremism. But the definition of this offense is slippier than a politician’s campaign promise. The definition of extremism has continually been amended to permit government policies that few sober people previously advocated.

Prior to 2000, anyone who asserted that the Census Bureau was deeply involved with the roundup of Japanese-Americans for internment camps in 1942 was considered an extremist. The Census Bureau spent 60 years denying its role but finally admitted its culpability ten years ago after academics uncovered undeniable proof. Regardless of the Census Bureau’s past abuses or perennial deceit, only extremists believe that their answers to this year’s census could ever be used against them.

Prior to September 2001, anyone who suggested that the U.S. government lead a crusade to “rid the world of evil”would have been labeled both an extremist and a loon. But when George W. Bush promised exactly that three days after 9/11, the media cheered and his approval ratings soared.

Prior to November 2001, anyone who suggested that the president had the power to suspend the right of habeas corpus and perpetually detain anyone he accused of serious wrongdoing would have been considered an extremist. But Bush’s executive decree on enemy combatants made this the law — or at least the policy — of the land.

Prior to 2002, anyone who suggested that the U.S. government create a Total Information Awareness database of personal information on tens of millions of Americans would have been considered an extremist. But federal spy agencies rushed forward with exactly such plans, and the feds have stockpiled far more data on citizens.

Prior to April 2004, anyone who asserted that the U.S. military was torturing detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan was seen as an anti-American extremist. The leaking of the Abu Ghraib photos and official reports on abuses at Guantanamo and elsewhere proved that the extremists’ worst fear had become national policy. And when Congress effectively ratified Bush’s torture policies in the 2006 Military Commissions Act, “extremists”came to connote people who believed that American democracy had utterly disgraced itself.

Prior to the war on terror, anyone who advocated using tortured confessions in judicial proceedings would have been considered an extremist and perhaps also a medievalist. But the Justice Department and Pentagon effectively claimed a right to use confessions regardless of how they were acquired.

Prior to late 2005, anyone who asserted that the National Security Agency was routinely and massively illegally wiretapping Americans’ phone calls and email without a warrant was considered paranoid — as well as an extremist. Within weeks of the New York Times’ exposing the government’s warrantless surveillance apparatus, Republican congressmen stood and cheered during Bush’s State of the Union address when he boasted of his intrusions.

Prior to recent years, anyone who suggested that Uncle Sam should be able to take naked snapshots of all airline passengers would have been considered a lunatic, as well as an extremist. But the Transportation Security Agency, with its Whole Body X-ray systems, is doing exactly that in many airports around the nation. And the TSA’s promises that such photos will not be stored or abused are as credible as TSA’s earlier promises that no one would be delayed more than 10 minutes waiting in airport checkpoint lines.

Prior to the post-9/11 era, if someone suggested that the federal government should bloat its Terrorist Watch List with more than a million names, the person would have been considered a fool and an extremist. But this is exactly what the feds have done — and that is part of the reason why the watch lists have become almost useless as well as a peril to scores of thousands of innocent Americans.

Prior to this decade, only extremists believed that the president should be permitted to order the assassination of American citizens — with no attempt to arrest or try the suspected wrongdoer. Yet, President Obama recently officially made this the national policy.

Time and again, the U.S. government has adopted policies that only extremists advocated a few years earlier. And yet, no one is supposed to think that the government has become the biggest extremist of them all.

JAMES BOVARD serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation and is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books.




More articles by:

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, Terrorism and Tyranny, and other books. Bovard is on the USA Today Board of Contributors. He is on Twitter at @jimbovard. His website is at www.jimbovard.com  This essay was originally published by Future of Freedom Foundation.

March 20, 2018
Jonathan Cook
US Smooths Israel’s Path to Annexing West Bank
Jeffrey St. Clair
How They Sold the Iraq War
Chris Busby
Cancer, George Monbiot and Nuclear Weapons Test Fallout
Nick Alexandrov
Washington’s Invasion of Iraq at Fifteen
David Mattson
Wyoming Plans to Slaughter Grizzly Bears
Paul Edwards
My Lai and the Bad Apples Scam
Julian Vigo
The Privatization of Water and the Impoverishment of the Global South
Mir Alikhan
Trump and Pompeo on Three Issues: Paris, Iran and North Korea
Seiji Yamada
Preparing For Nuclear War is Useless
Gary Leupp
Brennan, Venality and Turpitude
Martha Rosenberg
Why There’s a Boycott of Ben & Jerry’s on World Water Day, March 22
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes