FBI officials recently converged on a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in North Carolina. Their mission? To communicate to the law enforcement officials across the country the threat posed by what the FBI views as violent religious extremists who believe the end of the world is imminent.
The FBI has been working on this presentation for months now, under the auspices of a program labeled "Project Megiddo." In a report prepared for the project, the FBI warns that "The volatile mix of apocalyptic religious and conspiracy theories may produce violent acts aimed at precipitating the end of the world as prophesied in the Bible." Ostensibly, the FBI's goal is to avert any violence by notifying local police of the threat.
On its face, Project Megiddo seems laudable. After all, FBI agents report that they have noticed certain individuals and groups stockpiling weapons and surveying potential targets in anticipation of the millennium. And there's something to be said for being prepared for violent contingencies.
But the somber rhetoric about protecting Americans from millennial terrorists hides the fact that the FBI is dangerously close to trampling those same Americans' constitutional rights.
Project Megiddo amounts to "religious profiling"--targeting potentially dangerous persons based on their religious beliefs. And there is a long line of Supreme Court precedent clearly stating that such profiling violates the Constitution. The nation's highest court has said, "The Constitution ... affirmatively mandates accommodation, not mere tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any."
But the constitutional hazards of Project Megiddo are just the beginning of the FBI's problems. There's also the very real risk that targeting religious groups could actually lead to more violence, not less.
The Waco fiasco was caused in part by the FBI's ignorance and incompetence with regard to the Branch Davidians' religious beliefs. Members of the House of Representatives' Government Reform and Oversight Committee criticized the agency for its refusal to accept assistance by religious experts familiar with the Branch Davidians' theology. On one occasion, a negotiator actually told David Koresh that his religious beliefs were "garbage."
From the looks of Project Megiddo, the FBI hasn't learned anything from the Waco disaster. Even the title of the project--Megiddo being the hill where the apocalyptic battle of Armageddon is supposed to occur--suggests that the FBI is anticipating violent clashes with groups the bureau views as religious extremists.
Some of the groups the FBI is targeting most likely view Project Megiddo as proof that the end is near. Their theology suggests that they will be persecuted intensely during the end times. Thus, as these groups see the FBI gearing up to fight them, it could ironically make them more prone to respond violently.
A further concern with Project Megiddo is its cloak of secrecy. The North Carolina meeting was closed to the public and reporters. Following protests from various groups, the report on the project has now been made publicly available. But what was said behind those closed doors in North Carolina is still under wraps. What, specifically, will local police take back to their hometowns? And with even less constitutional training than FBI agents, how will they avoid violating the rights of their constituents?
The Project Megiddo report claims that it's only concerned with religious beliefs connected to the year 2000 that could lead to violence. But that line is a gray one. After all, a recent Newsweek poll revealed that 40% of American adults believe that the world will end in the Battle of Armageddon. And a series of novels by fundamentalist authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry
Jenkins depicting the end of the world as described in biblical prophecy have sold over 9 million copies. Given the FBI's clumsy history of dealing with religious groups, it's not a stretch to suspect that the bureau could target any one of these millions of Americans who believe in a more literal reading of the book of Revelation.
The truth is that if Jesus Christ were alive today, he would in all likelihood be a target of Project Megiddo. But Christ isn't the only one. Historical figures through the ages have perceived life as a tragic play which would climax in a coming apocalypse.
The FBI report on Project Megiddo begins: "The name 'Megiddo' is an apt title for a project that analyzes those who believe the year 2000 will usher in the end of the world and who are willing to perpetrate acts of violence to bring that end about." In reality, however, Megiddo is an apt title for a project that infringes on fundamental constitutional rights and may lead to more violence than it prevents. We can only pray that it doesn't end like Waco, in a bonfire of innocent lives.