It’s become common for a tragedy to be immediately labeled an act of terrorism, usually based upon the deep reasoning, “how could this not be terrorism?” It’s become a word that expresses a depth of anger, of outrage, based upon motives, usually assumed at the point where the word gets pulled out, of someone committing an atrocity for the purpose of sending a message.
If it were thrown about with reckless abandon merely as a rhetorical ploy, or a catharsis because words like murder just don’t carry the gravitas needed anymore, that would be relatively silly but harmless. The problem is law enforcement has latched on to this phenomenon and now seeks to play the useful idiots for all their worth.
When detectives from the New York Police Department’s intelligence bureau arrested Jose Pimentel on Nov. 20, 2011, he was in a Washington Heights apartment putting the finishing touches on a pipe bomb he was building in an Al Qaeda-inspired plot to attack military and police targets in the city. On March 22, 2017, James Harris Jackson was arrested for the racially motivated sword killing of Timothy Caughman. Mr. Jackson, a white supremacist, said he had planned to kill more people of color in New York, hoping to start a race war.
Mr. Pimentel and Mr. Jackson were charged under the New York State antiterrorism law. Enacted shortly after Sept. 11, it allows New York to bring terrorism charges regardless of whether the ideological motive is “foreign” or “domestic” or whether the weapon is a bomb or a sword. This approach is a model for tackling today’s terrorist threat.
The authors of this blatant play for hearts without minds are two NYPD “intelligence” (forgive the oxymoron) officers. The title of this op-ed is “We Work for the N.Y.P.D. This Is What We’ve Learned About Terrorism.” The subtitle is the kicker: “We should not distinguish between ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ violence against citizens.”
After grabbing you by the tear ducts, they juxtapose their “model” law, New York Penal law § 490.25, with federal law, their purpose being to note that New York law, enacted after 9/11, makes no distinction between foreign and domestic terrorism. What they neglect to note is that the New York law effectively accomplishes nothing more than a sentencing enhancement.
1. A person is guilty of a crime of terrorism when, with intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a unit of government by intimidation or coercion, or affect the conduct of a unit of government by murder, assassination or kidnapping, he or she commits a specified offense.
The offenses are “murder, assassination or kidnapping.” They were all crimes before. They are still crimes. The “crime of terrorism” is committing these crimes with specific intent. The upshot in New York is that it elevates the harshness of the punishment. For example:
(d) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, when a person is convicted of a crime of terrorism pursuant to this section, and the specified offense is a class A-I felony offense, the sentence upon conviction of such offense shall be life imprisonment without parole; provided, however, that nothing herein shall preclude or prevent a sentence of death when the specified offense is murder in the first degree as defined in section 125.27 of this chapter.
This, the “intelligence” officers argue, is the model for a nation.
The requirements to be charged as a terrorist in current federal terrorism statutes and those of many states do not match today’s threat. The most often used federal law, “Providing Material Support to Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” requires a documented connection between the suspect and a terrorist group, as designated by the secretary of state, such as ISIS or Al Qaeda. Other federal terrorism laws that do not require such a connection are so specific about the type of weapon used (for example, a bomb or a chemical, biological or nuclear device) or the intended target that mass casualty attacks against civilians by “domestic” terrorists using assault weapons or vehicles don’t count as terrorism for charging purposes.
In the first instance, “material support,” the crime created was new, designed to criminalize Americans who aided terrorist organizations, at the time an amorphous but very serious concern. We were facing a novel threat and trying hard to figure out what to do about it. In the second instance, the crime addressed a new fear of attack, such as anthrax or dirty bombs, that dealt with traditional state-level crimes such as murder, but seemed to demand a federal remedy rather than be left in the hands of local yokels to address.
That does not make sense in a country where we have seen a constant stream of such terrorist attacks to advance wide-ranging political agendas. While 34 states and the District of Columbia have their own antiterrorism laws, many have the same pitfalls as federal law.
To what end? What difference does it make if federal law doesn’t provide a generalized crime of terrorism and covers domestic and foreign acts. In every instance, the underlying conduct is already a crime. It’s just not a crime plus the word “terrorism.” What does throwing the word “terrorism” atop the flaming pile of tragedy contribute? Nowhere in the op-ed do the pair offer a reason, but then, that’s not the purpose of their ploy, and they are playing it as hard as they can.
Make no mistake, they have learned from each other: James Alex Fields’s vehicle attack at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 that killed Heather Heyer and injured 28 others was a page out of the ISIS playbook. Mr. Fields was charged with a hate crime, but not as a terrorist.
Tug, tug, tug. Yank.
We also need to eliminate any legal or moral differentiation between equally violent ideologies in drafting and applying our terrorism laws. Today’s violent actors include familiar threats such as white supremacists and Qaeda foot soldiers, but also followers of new ideologies, like incels — involuntary celibates — a movement linked to mass attacks resulting in numerous deaths.
The arguments for why it matters that a mass murderer be denominated a “terrorist” range from the vapid belief that it will cause the government to put greater resources toward a crime to the insipid, “but it IS!!!” But there is a far more nefarious piece that law enforcement sees, the foremost example of which is Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and its love child, FISC, the secret court where foreign terrorist plots are foiled. Then there black sites, extraordinary rendition and enemy combatants who may or may not be waterboarded.
Recognizing that deployment of the word “terrorism” overcomes all reason, this is the perfect time to put the syllogism in play.
Something must be done
This is something.
This must be done.
Will we fall for it? Again?