The Tea Party grew out of nothing to become a major force in American politics based on a simple premise: the state had become dominated by liberals, and was now out to get decent conservative Americans. Following claims that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) targeted not only Tea Party groups but also right-wing pro-Israel groups,many conservatives feel their point has been proven. They are wrong. These cases are not the result of an IRS out to target conservatives, but rather of years of knee-jerk government in the years after 9/11 in which the principles of sound and limited government were sacrificed on the altar of national security.
The spotlight has returned to the IRS after right-wing pro-Israeli Z Street decided to take time out from the great Jewish alphabet war it has been waging against liberal rival J Street, to sue the IRS for discrimination. Z Street's allegation is serious — that the IRS targeted it specifically because it was pro-Israeli. Such allegations sound familiar to right wingers who remember the allegations made by a number of Tea Party groups that they were also targeted by the IRS.
The IRS investigations into the Tea Party groups and Z Street were launched by the Touch and Go group within the Cincinnati office of the IRS. Some conservatives fear that this Orwellian-sounding group is a tool of the Obama administration being used to target its political enemies. In reality, however, Touch and Go was created by the Bush administration in 2005 to target charities believed to be funding terrorist groups.
The case will not be resolved until at least July. What is clear is that the IRS denies discrimination but admits that Z Street attracted the attention of Touch and Go because of its links to Israel. It notes that it is supposed to target groups funding terrorism, and therefore investigates groups with links to countries with high levels of terrorism, such as Israel.
While it is possible that there are individuals within the IRS who target groups that have political opinions they disagree with, it is also clear at an institutional level that the IRS focuses its investigations according to simplistic measures. A whole range of groups have been investigated for their links to countries with high levels of terrorism. Unsurprisingly, most of these are not Jewish groups but Muslim ones.
Indeed, for many American Muslims involved in charitable activity Z Street’s situation seemed very familiar. “When the story came out a lot of us said this is the same thing that has been happening to us over the past decade,” said Abed Ayoub of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Targeting groups with links to countries with high levels of terrorism is logical on the face of it, and fits entirely with the post-9/11 mind-set of the Bush administration, in which securing Americans against the terrorist threat was a number one priority. The same mindset created the Patriot Act and allowed the government to hugely increase its powers across a whole range of areas, with scant notice being paid to limits that arguably should have been imposed by the Constitution.
The point is not that organizations believed to have links with terrorist organisations should not be investigated, still less that they should be allowed charitable status. Rather the point is that sweeping generalizations which focus investigations onto groups that fall into simple categories (whether that is "Muslim" or "Middle Eastern" or anything else) will unfairly burden certain communities. The result is that it becomes harder for many legitimate organizations to operate.
As can be seen from the passions aroused by the Z Street case, such investigations will also foster a feeling of victimization, which is likely to create feelings of alienation and anger that damage community relations and maybe even increase the risks that these measures seek to combat.
The state isn’t out to get conservatives. However, only by reasserting old constitutional limits will Americans ensure that government doesn’t get in the way of everyone’s right to pursue their own version of freedom and of community.