In response to the ACLU’s June 10, 2009 letter demanding that the DoD pull a question from its DoD training exam that equated protest with “low-level terrorism,” which I wrote about at Open Salon on June 14 (“DoD Training Manual: Protests are ‘Low-Level Terrorism’”) – and which was reposted and written about on scores of websites and blogs, both left and right - the DoD has removed the question from the exam.
This is good news. The problem, however, goes deeper than this one question. Before going into that, let’s look at the DoD’s latest actions and its explanation:
As reported by Fox News:
“The Pentagon has removed a controversial question from its anti-terrorism training exam that labeled ‘protests’ a form of ‘low-level terrorism,’ calling the question ‘poorly worded.’
“A Pentagon spokesman said the question failed to make clear the difference between illegal violent demonstrations and constitutionally protected peaceful protests.
“Civil libertarians and activist groups, interviewed by FOXNews.com for a story that appeared on Wednesday [June 17], had objected strongly to the exam question, which a Department of Defense employee had printed and given to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“The question asked:
“’Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorism?’
“— Attacking the Pentagon
“— Hate crimes against racial groups
“The correct answer, according to the exam, was ‘Protests.’
“’They should have made it clearer there’s a clear difference between illegal violent demonstrations and peaceful, constitutionally protected protests,’ Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk said on Thursday.
“Asked when a protest becomes an ‘illegal, violent demonstration,’ Melnyk said, ‘I’m not a lawyer. I couldn’t get into the specifics of when you cross the line.’
“’If you’re doing physical damage to people or property, that could fall into that,’ he said.”
There remain a number of troubling issues here.
First, how do even violent demonstrations constitute “terrorism?" Conflating the two gives license to authorities to claim with impunity that they had to act with suppressive or even pre-emptive arrests and perhaps much more violent and repressive action, including shooting demonstrators, because they feared that the demonstrations might or were showing some signs of becoming violent and therefore “terrorist.” A society in which protest of any kind is officially linked to terrorism can only be described as a tyranny.
This is what in fact was done to the RNC Welcoming Committee at the 2008 RNC convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Authorities carried out pre-emptive raids upon peaceful protesters prior to their even peacefully demonstrating and charged them with “domestic terrorism.” In the course of this, at least one of the arrested US citizen activists was brutalized in a fashion that comes very close to torture.
Second, the DoD exam question sought to define “low-level terrorism.”
It was not intended to distinguish peaceful and legal protest from “illegal, violent demonstration.”
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Les Melnyk’s account for what was wrong with the question/answer choices – that the problem was that the question/answer did not distinguish between legal protest and illegal protest – is, therefore, not entirely convincing or truthful.
The Fox story goes on to say that Melnyk “added that many Defense employees work in countries where violent demonstrations are regular occurrences.
“’In those situations, that anti-Americanism might be taken out on an American in the crowd,’ Melnyk said.”
This is also not entirely convincing or truthful.
The original question includes as answer choices actions that occur in both foreign locales and/or within the US, so it can’t accurately been said that the DoD had in mind only foreign locations.
Obviously an attack on the Pentagon has to happen within the US.
I.E.D.’s are used outside of the U.S.
Hate crimes against racial groups can and do occur both within the US and outside of the US.
Protests occur within and outside of the US.
Since the “correct” answer according to the DoD was “protests” = “low-level terrorism,” they cannot accurately say that they had in mind only violent protests in foreign lands because their answer choices included activities that occur within the US.
The correct answer should have been “none of the above.”
Third, the question and answer choices were obviously deliberately designed to lead the exam taker/DoD employee to choose “Protests” as an example of “low-level terrorism” inasmuch as the other answer choices are all obviously not low-level acts. All of the others are very violent attacks.
Finally, as I pointed out in my article, the term “low-level terrorism” appears to be a “term of art” within security agency circles given that a scholarly paper delivered in February of 2009 at an international conference incorporated it into its title as such:
“Vinthagen, Stellan. ‘Labeling “Low Level Terrorism:” The Out-Definition of Social Movements’ Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA's 50th ANNUAL CONVENTION ‘EXPLORING THE PAST, ANTICIPATING THE FUTURE’ New York Marriott Marquis, NEW YORK CITY, NY, USA, Feb 15, 2009.
“Abstract: This paper explores current state security tendency to label ordinary protests and opposition as "low level terrorism" or social movements as "terrorist environments" and the political and democratic consequences of such a politics of fear. The judic [the abstract cuts off here.]”
The problem at its heart, in other words, is that this particular question in the DoD training exam is merely a glaring individual example of a larger trend and mentality – the criminalization of protest and dissent and its relegation to a category of “terrorism,” legitimating the repression of dissent and free speech and assembly, ranging from declarations by public officials that dissenting ideas are “unpatriotic” and “traitorous” to training DoD employees that protest is terrorism-lite. The prospects revealed here are alarming.