In the past, domestic terrorists weren’t called terrorists. Even people who were waging wars of terror weren’t called terrorists. As I’ve written elsewhere, John Brown was tried as a common criminal, and he was hanged as one even though, in his own words, he intended to use “shock” and “terror” to achieve a political end—abolition. Back then, domestic terrorists were just called criminals. And they were treated like criminals. And that worked just fine actually. Justice was served time and time again.
But something major happened in the United States after 9/11. Of course, the slide toward a more powerful central government had already been well-established by then, but after the Twin Towers fell, the civil government had our permission to grow out of control. The specter of “terrorism” cast a long shadow, and we were afraid. So the civil government stepped in with the backronymically named USA PATRIOT (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism) Act to “protect” us. This act, and the acts that have followed it, have fundamentally changed the way “terrorism,” and especially “domestic terrorism,” are treated and defined.
Consider for a moment. A group of people form a criminal conspiracy to blow up a building. They succeed. What are they? They are criminals. Later, you find out that they blew up the building to destabilize our society because their religion tells them that we are all evil. Oh, and they are from the Middle East. What are they now? Terrorists? It doesn’t really matter. Still just criminals in the end unless they were acting as authorized agents of a national government. In which case they aren’t terrorists or criminals. They’re soldiers. And any citizen can kill them as an invading force.
I hope you see what I am getting at. Terrorism has to do with motivation, intent, and desired effect, which shouldn’t really matter that much in a criminal investigation. Justice is supposed to be blind after all. Example: A man kills another man. This is a crime. It should be punished in a manner fitting to the crime, and swiftly. Another scenario: A man kills a homosexual man. Why would he do that? Was it because the murderer hated homosexuals? What happened to the guy when he was growing up? Let’s talk to some family members and get to the bottom of this. Can we interview his wife? Did he keep a journal? No. Who cares, people! The same act happened. It’s not a hate crime. It’s just crime. Treat it like a crime. The application of an emotional or ideological motivation to a crime is unnecessary (and unhelpful) for the execution of justice.
Likewise, labeling something a “terrorist act” is just as useless (from a judicial standpoint) as labeling something a “hate crime.” It just doesn’t really matter why someone does something. Well, it shouldn’t matter. Unless your intention is to prevent (the PATRIOT Act prefers the terms “intercept” and “obstruct”) the crime before it happens, rather than just execute justice on criminal acts. Ah. Now I understand. The point is not recompense. It’s regulation.
“Domestic terrorism” is a sticky and arbitrary term. The PATRIOT Act, Title VIII defines “terrorist acts” as any activities that are “dangerous to human life,” “in violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State,” and intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” So, most any crime with lethal potential could be considered a terrorist act. I would be okay with this as a definition if it were applied only after the fact to keep the closed-case files organized or something. The problem is that the civil government is using this definition to determine who may or may not be treated as a potential terrorist—before any crime has been committed.
Why else would you need to profile people to determine who is more likely ideologically to commit a terrorist act? Why would you need to scrutinize right-wing organizations, libertarians, gun-owners, non-conformists, etc.? Because you are constantly on the watch for another Timothy McVeigh—another potential perpetrator of domestic terrorism. You want to intercept him before he resorts to “principled violence.” So you monitor everyone. You’ve got drones buzzing around like fireflies on a balmy southern evening. And you justify all of this by throwing around the increasingly catch-all term “terrorism.” The purpose of the civil government is not to be our nanny. They don’t owe us security. All they owe us is justice. And honestly, we were all far more secure when justice was the only thing they were serving. Go figure.
What we have now is an ever-expanding cadre of Thought Police. Our civil government has capitalized on the modern concept of “terrorism” to transform all crime into potentially federal crime. When all crime is potentially against the country, the central government has jurisdiction everywhere. And since the name of the game is interception, that means the civil government has a great need to exercise its universal jurisdiction to make every private place public. After all, we need to find those dastardly “terrorists” in their lairs before they come out and hurt the whole country. “Who cares about the Bill of Rights! We’ve got terrorists on our hands. Are you trying to protect terrorists? Maybe you’re a terrorist!”
To bring up a recent example, the Tsarnaevs should have been arrested under the authority and direction of local law enforcement, tried in a local Massachusetts court, and (if found guilty) executed by Massachusetts correctional officers for murder. Instead, they were considered “terrorists” and therefore enemies of the country, and the entire city of Boston was put on lockdown by federal forces. Around the same time, I read an article in the guardian that was bemoaning the fact that everyone cared about the Boston Marathon bombing, but no one seemed to care about the Mother’s Day Parade Shooting in New Orleans (which happened around the same time). The author was bummed because he thought the reason New Orleans didn’t get coverage is because affluent Americans don’t care about black people (in so many words—he pulled a Kanye West). I disagreed with his conclusion, but his premises were interesting. Why did the media largely ignore the Mother’s Day Parade shooting? I don’t think it was racially motivated. I think it was because the shooting was considered a crime, and therefore did not have national significance. The crime in Boston was called domestic terrorism. The actual difference in the crime itself? No fundamental difference at all really. Both should have been considered crimes and dealt with accordingly by local law enforcement. Gawker posted an article on the disconnect (though, ultimately, I don’t think they got the point either):
A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into radical Islam and become violent. A couple of disaffected young men in search of meaning drift into street crime and become violent. A crowd of innocent people attending the Boston marathon are maimed by flying shrapnel from homemade bombs. A crowd of innocent people attending a Mother’s Day celebration in New Orleans are maimed by flying bullets. Two public events. Two terrible tragedies. One act of violence becomes a huge news story, transfixing the media’s attention for months and drawing outraged proclamations from politicians and pundits. Another act of violence is dismissed as the normal way of the world and quickly forgotten. The victims bleeding on the ground may be forgiven for failing to see the distinction between the two acts. For those on the receiving end, violence is violence. For the rest of us, it is a rhetorical tool . . .
A rhetorical tool indeed. The definition and treatment of “terrorism” has been the “rhetorical tool” for a complete dismantling of American civil liberties. The term “terrorism” has become toxic and unhelpful. We don’t need it. If an individual from our country or another country commits a criminal act in our country and he is not acting as an authorized agent representing another country, he should be treated as a criminal by local law enforcement unless the nature of the crime is so serious that it requires the intervention of the militia or military forces (e.g., the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859). If an individual is acting as an authorized agent of another country, he is not perpetrating a terrorist act, he is committing an act of war and the rules of war apply. Under no circumstances should a citizen of the United States ever be called an “enemy combatant” or be treated like an enemy soldier. The terms “domestic terrorist” and “terrorist” cannot be applied to a citizen of this country if those terms mean the lifting or loosening of that citizen’s rights as protected in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
As conservatives especially, I think we need to rethink why we use the term “terrorist” and whether or not it is helpful to our cause. It most certainly has been abused, redefined, and commandeered by an increasingly tyrannical government bent on both its own aggrandizement and the subjection of its citizens.
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