The public registry is an American institution, a Puritan-esque way for the community to slap a scarlet letter on bad citizens, a warning to all through the shaming of one. For sexual offenders, the registry is a permanent sentencing of sorts. For shitty landlords, it's a way to pressure them to clean up their act.
In both situations, the message is pretty simple: Beware.
But what if there were a registry for American-bred, homegrown terrorists? New York State Senator Thomas Croci, a Republican from Long Island, wants to find out.
Meet the "New York State Terrorist Registry Act," a bill that would essentially create a publicly available list of neighborhood jihadists.
The registry would be compiled using suspects from state agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and exist as a shared source of information for future like-minded projects. Once the list is out, you'd receive a notification telling you who on your block may or may not be a convicted terrorist.
Forget a repeat sex offender—you may have an Islamic State sympathizer living nearby.
In true Red Scare fashion, a special phone number and website would be available should you want to blacklist the Islamic fundamentalists who are possibly living right in your backyard. It would even be considered a class A felony for alleged terrorists to not put their name on the list, or fail to provide the state with DNA samples.
Of course, the most confusing part of this list is exactly who would belong on it: technically, the registry would include anyone convicted of a terrorism-related crime, or has committed a "verifiable act of terrorism"—defined here, in part, as appearing on a massive FBI terrorist screening database. But while the term "terrorist" might be the most fearful word in the American lexicon, it's also one of the most legally ill-defined terms out there.
"There are serious problems with the breadth of what can constitute a criminal act relating to terrorism under federal and state laws and guidelines, and the arbitrariness of how those laws are enforced," Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told me. "We know, for example, that political speech and activism, and broad associations having nothing to do with the conduct of the person herself can lead to investigation and prosecution, and that convictions are mostly the result of pressured plea deals, not the government proving its case.
"This registry would add on to those underlying problems by further stigmatizing, harassing and punishing many people who have already been wrongfully targeted and punished," he continued.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, there are over a million Americans on secret FBI-administered terrorist watch lists deep inside the US government, with nearly half a million added in 2013 alone—many of whom have never actually been convicted of a crime. The Intercept has also reported that nearly 700,000 Americans are routinely kept a close eye on by the feds (some 280,000 of whom lack any link to a known terrorist organization). Widdle those numbers down to the Empire State, and, according to Capital New York, you have tens of thousands of New Yorkers making this VIP list of America's Most Wanted.
So this registry could be as thick as the Yellow Pages, with an uncomfortable search bar to sift through dozens upon dozens of names. And in the end, a registry to warn us about creeping terrorism could end up just revealing how insane our security state has become. After all, it's not clear which is more frightening: a terrorist list that includes a few suspicious neighbors, or one that spans an entire neighborhood. At least sex offenders and shitty landlords are few and far between.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, argues the bill makes "absolutely no sense," and that databasing of this kind wastes taxpayer money. According to Sarsour, a well-known social justice advocate and staunch opponent of the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program, most of the time the people on these lists do not even know they're deemed a terrorist in the eyes of the federal government.
"Sometimes when and if people are convicted, it's based on 'secret evidence,' so we don't even know the nature of their crime," she wrote me in an email. "It could be that they let a man stay at their home who then later was tracked by CIA internationally and deemed a member of a terrorist group and you then get charged for material support even if you absolutely had no idea. These types of lists end up long and include innocent people of all walks of life."
I brought these civil liberties concerns up with Christopher Molluso, Senator Croci's chief of staff, and he responded that the bill is a "work in progress" that would enlist the help of federal and state agencies to compile the most sensible inventory. "We're open to suggestions as to how to best make this list," he said. "We do not want to be overbroad in our interpretation of the bill."
As to whether the registry might end up as big as the entire population of a mid-sized city, Molluso said no one has identified that problem to the Senator's office yet, but amendments being introduced next week aim to make the registry more "focused and targeted."
As it stands, the bill would allow the New York State Division of Homeland Security can place anyone on the list who, although not convicted of committing a "verifiable act of terrorism," is deemed a 'serious and immediate' risk. And to get off of this list, one would have to petition state supreme court judges. If you're not convincing, the Division of Homeland Security could appeal, meaning you'd a classified terrorist until the court says otherwise (whenever that may be).
Rest assured: The terrorist registry, according to Senator Croci, would not be an Orwellian trap. "We're in the process of clarifying the verifiable act language and that will be different from what you're seeing now," he told Capital. "It will be more explicit as to what that means and it'll be more restrictive."
The New York State Terrorist Registry Act has ten co-sponsors in the State Senate but no sponsor in the Assembly. We reached out to the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has so far offered no indication of whether he'll sign the thing into law, but haven't heard back.
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