IN the aftermath of the April 19 Oklahoma City bombing, Rep. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and 25 other members of Congress have rushed to sponsor the Clinton administration's 1995 Omnibus Counterterrorism Act. If ratified, it will give the president unfettered power to blacklist any organization in the world as ''terrorist,'' and make it a crime for US citizens to support even the peaceful activities of that group.
Civil libertarians like David Cole of Georgetown University have pointed out that the ban on charitable contributions for lawful activities in all likelihood violates the Constitution, as would a provision to create McCarthy-style deportation courts in which federal prosecutors could use secret evidence against immigrants suspected of links to terrorists.
An even more fundamental problem with the proposed legislation is that terrorism itself is a murky, patently political concept. The administration -- like most who use the term -- apply it with neither uniformity nor consistency to, say, parallel acts of political violence.
Turn, for example, to ''Terrorism Defined'' in the administration's proposed legislation. One finds that terrorism ''means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets.''
''Terrorism activity'' is listed as: ''the use of any ... explosive, firearm, or other weapon ... with intent to endanger ... the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.''
This classification would seem to apply so broadly -- encompassing even actions by a good many governments -- as to render it meaningless.
Consider for a moment the two major conflicts in the Middle East. In Turkey, Kurdish rebels who attack civilians are considered terrorists. Turkish soldiers who bomb and clear out Kurdish villages are not. President Clinton, in fact, approves their brutalities as an understandable response to (Kurdish) ''terror.''
In Israel, Palestinian violence against Israelis is terrorism. Violence by the Israeli Army is ''security.''
Robert Fisk, the fine Middle East correspondent for the London Independent, recently illustrated the Western media's blithe acceptance of such double standards in a stinging essay that ran in The London Review of Books. Mr. Fisk notes that last Oct. 19, seven hours after a Palestinian suicide attack on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, an Israeli tank in Southern Lebanon fired 10 ''flechettes'' -- shells that spew three-inch long steel arrows when they explode -- into southern Lebanon. Seven civilians, including two girls, were killed.
Had such shells been fired into Israel, Washington and the media would have condemned the act as terrorism. Instead, it went virtually unreported. The Dizengoff street terrorism, however, was a story for days.
Fisk also describes an incident when Israeli soldiers killed a Hamas gunman, then destroyed 17 homes in the area. Fisk and his crew filmed the incident -- and the response from a boy who hurled stones at the soldiers. On CNN that evening, a clip of the boy throwing the stones was shown. The Israeli attack was not mentioned.
Any clampdown following the Oklahoma bombing should be understood in this context -- as a careful, highly selective targeting and stigmatization of certain forms of violence carried out by certain groups. Mainly these are of ''Middle Eastern extraction'' -- as CNN (and other news groups) described the likely culprits days after the Oklahoma carnage.
The policy dates to Jan. 24, when Mr. Clinton declared terrorism a national emergency and froze the assets of 12 Middle Eastern groups considered dangerous to the Middle East peace process. Ten of the groups were Palestinian. Indeed, every major Palestinian group was targeted, except Yasser Arafat's Fatah.
Two Israeli groups (Kach and Kahane Chai) were also targeted. But their leaders have indicated that they were tipped off in time to transfer their assets abroad. That is not unlikely, given that Malcolm Heinlin of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has stated that representatives of his organization had been working for months with the FBI on actual counter-terrorism initiatives.
Clinton's freeze did not mention Gush Emunim, the largest and most active Jewish settler group, whose leaders have a long history of plotting violence and who are certainly liable to turn combative should the peace process call for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
The Counterterrorism Act follows in this spirit. The president can blacklist any group or country that either ''engages in terrorism'' or (even more vaguely) ''threaten[s] the national security, foreign policy, or economy of the United States.'' Its purpose is to justify a crackdown on a small number of Islamic organizations that are responsible for only a fraction of the violence that endangers peace in the Middle East, and an infinitesimal portion of the random violence that makes Americans feel unsafe.
Also Washington gets a mandate to criminalize anyone deemed undesirable. There is no such thing as a friendly or allied or even tolerated terrorist. Yet in the real world there are many friends and allies who do precisely the things terrorists do.
Somehow this simple fact has escaped the legion of experts, consultants, and officials who since Oklahoma have been placed in charge of appraising the terrorism threat.