Don’t sneeze on a wheat stalk in Topeka. By the time you read this, exposing a crop to infectious disease could constitute a terrorist act in Kansas. The legislation, SB 395, has passed both houses and has been signed into law by the governor. Along with more than 1,000 other measures and proposals submitted in state jurisdictions since September 11, Kansas’s SB 395 is part of a new war on domestic terror, this one waged by our nation’s state governments.
Some of the proposed measures make sense, like protecting public buildings, tightening security at nuclear facilities and modernizing emergency response systems. But other proposals carry worrisome implications for free speech. Still others seem designed to advance all-too-familiar special interests.
Take Pennsylvania, where State Senator Joseph Scarnati wants to establish a crime called “environmental terrorism.” Under his bill, SB 1257, it would be easy to qualify as a terrorist–all one would have to do is communicate a threat to commit “a crime of violence…destructive to property or business practices.” Scarnati told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his intention was to support the timber industry in the state’s only national forest by deterring “preservationists” and the spread of their “misinformed ideas.” Jim Kleissler of the Allegheny Defense Project, one of the “preservationists” Scarnati has in his sights, says, “This bill capitalizes on 9/11 to label groups like ours ‘eco-terrorists.’ They want to define violence to mean ‘negative impacts on business,’ and that’s pretty far-reaching. It would apply to boycotts and picket lines.” The bill is currently in committee, where its fate is uncertain.
When post-9/11 passions were running high, legislation was sometimes introduced a bit hastily. In Oklahoma, according to SB 822, the threshold for “terrorism” could be as low as “any conduct…calculated to damage or destroy property…or produce a state of adversity, anxiety or fear…to coerce a population or government into granting demands, altering rights…or effecting any industrial, political or economic ends.” When one of the three legislators named as sponsors on the bill, State Representative M.C. Leist (who was born in Liberal, Kansas), was called for comment, a spokesperson in his office allowed as how Mr. Leist probably hadn’t read it yet. She referred a reporter to the Senate sponsor, Frank Shurden. Shurden explained the rationale for his bill: Oklahoma currently has no law on terror. “It never hurts to have a state law in case we need one,” he says. “Besides, sometimes the federal government works and sometimes it doesn’t.” When asked whether the “any conduct” wording was overbroad, Shurden paused and said, “We might have to look at that. I am in favor of demonstrations so long as they are peaceful, and we don’t want to overreact. That’s what Hitler did.”
As the horrors of September 11 recede with time, the legislative process has weeded out many of the most egregious measures. But far from all. In many states, lawmakers are proposing new categories of criminal offenses, lengthening prison terms, expanding use of the death penalty, increasing surveillance powers and cutting back access to public records while promoting a jingoistic form of patriotism and religion. All fifty states now have either an office or a commission on homeland security. The sheer volume of proposed legislation has been enormous, with California, New Jersey and New York legislators introducing about 100 antiterror bills each, and Florida lawmakers introducing about 100 proposals to cut back on public information alone.