The Expatriate Terrorist Act: An American culture of fear

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When Texas Senator Ted Cruz announced his intention to run for President in late March, his best-known and most embarrassing political stances - like his desire to abolish the IRS and his hypocritical stance on Obamacare - were dragged out of obscurity and into the limelight.

However, Cruz’s ardent support for the controversial Expatriate Terrorist Act has barely been mentioned. The proposed legislation, which would allow government officials to strip American citizenship from alleged supporters of designated terrorist groups, demonstrates Cruz’s willingness to capitalize off the visceral, visual horrors of ISIS for political gain and is also a chilling distillation of the culture of fear that permeates our lives. Regardless of whether the bill becomes law, it serves as a measure of the anxious state of the American national psyche, a reminder of our willingness to sacrifice the humanity of others when we believe our security is at stake.

The Expatriate Terrorist Act was sponsored into the Senate last September by Cruz and introduced into the House in early 2015 by Representative Steve King. The Act, which would allow decisions about citizenship to be made without a jury trial, on the basis of secret evidence, was introduced just as Americans and Europeans realized the full extent of the humanitarian crisis produced by the reign of the Islamic State. And it was those images – the murders of civilians and the beheadings of aid workers and journalists  – which Senator Cruz exploited when he introduced the Act last fall.


“The question is very simple," he said on the Congressional floor in September 2014, "Would any reasonable person want an American who is right now in Iraq, who is right now training with ISIS, who is right now taking up arms, who is right now participating in crucifying Christians, who is right now beheading children, who [has] right now participated in beheading two American journalists, would anyone of good conscience in either party want that person to be able to come back and land in LaGuardia airport with a U.S. passport and walk unmolested onto our streets?”

An existing federal statute enables citizen-stripping for Americans who affirmatively renounce their citizenship – for example, by taking an oath of allegiance to a foreign government – as well as for those who are convicted of crimes such as treason or conspiracy to overthrow the US government. But the Expatriate Terrorist Act would broadly expand citizenship powers without requiring any oversight from the judicial branch. It also utilizes the notoriously vague “material assistance” provision, meaning that even those suspected of providing peace training to terrorist groups could have their citizenship status removed. (According to National Intelligence Director James Clapper, about 180 Americans are believed to have traveled to Syria in recent months and years, which means they could become targets under Cruz's law.)

The United Kingdom, perhaps our closest ally in the War on Terror, has already employed similar powers many times. Two British terrorism suspects had their citizenship stripped in 2012 only to be subsequently killed in a US drone strike. Another British citizen, Mahdi Hashi, had his citizenship removed the same year; he was subsequently imprisoned in Djibouti and rendered to the United States on terrorism charges. Today, he sits in solitary confinement in downtown Manhattan.

This isn’t to say we’re following in Britain’s footsteps (although the United States has already demonstrated its willingness to kill American citizens by drone). In fact, chances are that the Expatriate Terrorist Act won’t pass. But that doesn’t mean the legislation isn’t important. The proposed bill carries immense significance regardless of whether it becomes law.


First of all, citizenship status is more than just a piece of paper; it is the mechanism through which we bear civil rights, and by extension human rights - which is why removing status from individuals is so dangerous. Mahdi Hashi is functionally stateless. He has no passport, no consular support, and no government bound by law to uphold his most basic and fundamental rights. “Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as a man, his human dignity,” wrote Hannah Arendt in her seminal 1951 text, The Origins of Totalitarianism. “Only the loss of the polity itself expels him from humanity.”

“The Nazis who were such legal pedants therefore always were careful to deprive those whom they intended to exterminate of their citizenship,” mused Arendt in notes from 1955. In other words, there is a relationship between the removal of citizenship and the way that a society relates to its expelled members. For Senator Cruz, “the terrorist” is not merely a criminal – “the terrorist” is subhuman, a demon to be exorcised. That this legislation could even be debated in Congress is marks our deep entrenchment in a racialized culture of fear.


Then there is the fact that Senator Cruz believes that he stands to gain politically by introducing this legislation – by advocating for stripping the most basic and fundamental of rights from fellow Americans (when we already have means to prosecute offenders under criminal law). What is obscured when we erase the humanity of “the terrorist”? To openly and genuinely consider what might drive a young American to join the Islamic State requires us to see “the terrorist” as rational, thinking, feeling being. If “the terrorist” is constituted as nothing more than wickedness, then the logic of the War on Terror remains intact – as the struggle of good over evil, lightness against dark.  It is the dehumanization of the "terrorist," the Muslim Other, that drives and enables the immensity of our own bruality.  According to a report recently released by Physicians for Social Responsibility, about 1.3 million people have died as a result of the US War on Terror - and that is a conservative estimate.

Citizenship stripping for political gain is part of our American history. Emma Goldman was deported in 1919 after having her citizenship revoked. “Not alone foreigners, but the naturalized citizen and the native-born are to be mentally fumigated, made politically ‘reliable’ and governmentally kosher, by eliminating the social critics and industrial protestants, by denaturalization and banishment, [and] by exile…” she wrote in a pamphlet authored from Ellis Island. Her words may seem far removed from today’s political realities – but they remind us that political motivations drive citizenship stripping, whether in the context of the Red Scare or the War on Terror.


Not surprisingly, the proposed legislation has been vocally opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which sent a letter to all senators soon after the bill was introduced, saying that “The bill turns the whole notion of due process on its head" and that “Government officials do not have the power to strip citizenship from American citizens who never renounced their citizenship and were never convicted of a crime.”

The sponsors of the Expatriate Terrorist Act, which compels us to believe that our survival depends on the dehumanization of someone else, would like us to think that the real existential threat to our country is the misled young men and women who have joined ISIS. It is not. The existential threat to our country is posed by Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz, and all those who believe that government is entitled to run roughshod over human rights to score political points. Our very humanity depends on recognizing the humanity of others – yes, even “terrorists.”


Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who writes about prisons, particularly the use of solitary confinement and the experiences of terrorism suspects and LGBTQ people behind bars.

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