The war at home

APPARENTLY, if terrorists crash a jetliner into the Columbia Tower or Space Needle and kill thousands, we just don't have any state laws that would outlaw such a thing. That's the only possible explanation for a series of bills now rumbling through the state Legislature in Olympia that would mimic, and in some cases worsen, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's federal expansion of law enforcement power and the assault on privacy.

Of course, there's another explanation for the enthusiastic call to arms by Gov. Gary Locke, state Attorney General Christine Gregoire, and a bipartisan stampede of legislators: government granting itself yet more power. But that's just speculation.

An assortment of "anti-terrorist" bills have been fast-tracked this legislative session, while bills addressing the state's very real transportation and budget crises are mired in negotiations or worse. That's also testimony to politicians' enthusiasm for a quick fix. The problem is, these "anti-terrorist" bills are a bad solution to a nonexistent problem. Mass murder is already illegal.

Four major bills have survived the first hurdle of being passed by one house, and three of them stand an excellent chance of becoming law. (The fourth, a very nasty House-approved wiretap bill, moves to the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chair, state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, has sensibly vowed to kill it.)

One of the three, SB 6439, a public-disclosure bill that would have vastly expanded state government's ability to keep secrets, was strenuously opposed by the Washington Newspaper Association. The association and other lobbyists managed to convince legislators to eliminate most of the bill's problematic provisions.

That leaves two broader anti-terrorism bills: the House-approved HB 2879, which now moves to the Senate, and the Senate-approved SB 6704, which now moves to the House. Both are unnecessary, loaded with new powers and longer sentences, but the House version (which passed 82-16) is worse. Among other things, it creates a new class of state death penalty, which for the first time makes nonpremeditated crimes eligible to become capital cases. The new standard would be if a defendant who is "seeking to affect government conduct" commits an act that "manifests an extreme indifference to human life." (When do we get to indict government officials for such crimes?) Needless to say, such language is open to all sorts of political bias. ACLU of Washington's legislative director, Jerry Sheehan, also points out that it's likely to obstruct justice by inspiring foreign countries where suspects may have fled to refuse extradition, as Canada and Brazil have done in recent years for local murder cases. Sheehan also thinks the bill is likely to be unconstitutional under state law, given the standards that the state's courts have set for capital cases.

While Washington's state constitution has even more guarantees against state abuse of power than the U.S. Constitution, Washington's legislators are in the habit of paying less attention to political freedom than even Congress does.

The state House and Senate have until March 8 to take floor action on legislation; before then, they must reach a compromise between the two anti-terrorism bills. If past experience is any guide, one of two things will happen during the crazed period in which countless bills compete for legislators' time and action: Either the bills will die quiet, merciful deaths, with each chamber able to boast that it passed something (and it was the other folks' fault it didn't become law); or some backroom compromise will be hammered out, and most legislators in both houses will vote for it without even reading through the actual legislation to learn what it does.

Local media hype to the contrary, the chances that Washington state will be the future target of foreign terrorists are pretty slim. The only known time one even tried to enter the state (on his way, apparently, to blowing up LAX), he was caught not by expanded law enforcement authorities but by an observant customs agent. He wouldn't have been caught under John Ashcroft's new laws or under Christine Gregoire's; nor would Sept. 11 have been prevented.

But the creation of domestic anti- terrorism task forces in Seattle, Portland, and Spokane in the last two years, uniting local and federal law enforcement officials, suggests a more likely target for such laws: far-left and far-right activists, whether they're targeting abortion clinics, animal-testing labs, genetically modified crops, or liberal media outlets. It's a slippery slope, though; when do such laws and police powers attach themselves to anti-WTO or anti-abortion protesters? Or to any political protest the government doesn't like? It will be left to lawyers and judges to decide—after the fact, usually—and that, along with our government's history of targeting political dissent, suggests that Olympia's zeal to mimic John Ashcroft creates many more potential problems than it fixes.

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