Americans are once again hearing of the perils of extremism. But the definition of this offense is more slippery 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.
About the author: James Bovard is the author of “Attention Deficit Democracy”  as well as “The Bush Betrayal” , “Lost Rights”  and “Terrorism and Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice and Peace to Rid the World of Evil” (Palgrave-Macmillan, September 2003) and serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Send him email.