Oregon bill should have created bigger stir, even in war

Who would have thought it?

After months of antiwar protests in the largest cities in the United States and Europe, and after years of discussion as to the nature of terrorism, these two topics may meet on the unlikeliest of battlefields.

Seemingly a world away from Washington D.C. and London, in the halls of government in Salem, Ore., lawmakers find themselves embroiled in a heated debate about the definition of a terrorist. The debate centers around a piece of legislation dubbed Senate Bill 742.

The bill, written by Republican Sen. John Minnis, defines a terrorist as a person who “plans or participates in an act that is intended by at least one of its participants to disrupt” items including business and transportation. What that effectively means is that protesters who choose to express their views by blocking traffic or businesses would, in Oregon, be guilty of much more than just disorderly conduct. They would be arrested as terrorists.

Once labeled a terrorist, penalties one receives become harsh. Protesters arrested under this law would be jailed for a minimum of 25 years.

The bill, once formally proposed, elicited an immediate wave of response in Oregon. Proponents of the bill said police powers to disperse potentially disruptive and dangerous protests are too weak. This bill, they say, would also allow more effective control of unruly crowds.

The dissenters, on the other hand, say basic freedoms are in jeopardy with this bill. They say such a free usage of the terrorist label may continue the erosion of civil liberties.

Other Oregon senators and experts seem to agree the bill had little chance to be passed from the start. But, passed or not, it does raise some significant questions.

First and foremost, Americans must ask themselves what actually constitutes a terrorist. Should an American citizen who takes the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest too far and is arrested be considered in the same breath as Osama bin Laden or Ramadan Shallah? Is a disruption of business and transportation a terrorist attack on the American way of life?

Or is this bill, as some assert, a simple case of a conservative senator attempting to end protests against a president he supports. If those are his true motivations, Minnis doesn’t need the political abuse he is receiving for this bill. As the War in Iraq continues, protests nationwide have slowly dwindled.

The usage of the word terrorism aside, this bill raises yet another question. What powers should be given to control massive protests around the nation? That discussion found a home at USF during the fall. When President George W. Bush visited the Sun Dome to rally support for his brother’s gubernatorial campaign and to stump for an Iraqi invasion, a few hundred protesters outside the building were corralled into “free speech zones.”

Is it constitutional to control protesters? Is the greater good protected when police arrest those who wander from the “free speech zones?” The question of protected free speech seems to go on and on. And, until there are any kind of regularly set rules, situations like those in Salem will continue to pop up.

The debate Bill 742 has created is healthy and necessary in today’s United States. With that in mind, the most disappointing aspect of the events in Oregon is the lack of national attention.

Yes, the story has been reported on various wire services. But it has not seen the full-scale debate it deserves.

Critics say that is part of Minnis’ plan. They say, with the war currently dominating the media, Minnis tried to slide Bill 742 under the radar.

This may be true, and it is a common political ploy to disguise bills or hide them behind bigger news. Either way, an important political discussion seems to have been lost, and with it several important questions that are now only whispered by some.

What will become of this bill? Will there be a neo-McCarthyism, or a modern Salem witch trial in which people accuse anyone they dislike of being terrorists? Will classifying ways in which American citizens, on their own soil, become terrorists be the next trend in U.S. politics?

Or is this simply an isolated incident that will quickly fade away?

Only time will tell.