By: Tarik Johnson
In the current federal criminal code, there is no specific domestic terrorism law. Currently the law distinguishes between “international” terrorism, which must have a foreign or transnational nexus, and “domestic” terrorism, which occurs primarily on American soil. The Justice Department relies on other laws such as hate crimes and weapons offenses in cases of politically motivated shootings. The absence of a domestic terrorism law is prompting survivors, victims’ families, law enforcement officials, and legal experts to ask lawmakers to create a domestic terrorism law that would aid investigators. “Acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries” is a federal crime, giving the F.B.I. and federal prosecutors jurisdiction to take the lead.
Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department national security official who has long called for enacting a domestic terrorism law, told the New York Times that the government needed to maintain trust with Muslim-American communities so people would sound warnings if they heard something potentially dangerous. She believes calling Islamist attacks “terrorism” in court, but not doing the same for white supremacist attacks, is a racist double standard that undermines such trust.
Violent anti-government extremists like Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, historically have been labelled Domestic terrorists. Crimes targeting African Americans, Jewish people, and other minorities have more regularly been treated as hate crimes, rather than terrorist attacks, and investigated by FBI criminal agents instead of counterterrorism agents. This past Tuesday, August 6th, the FBI Agents Association, which represents thousands of active-duty and retired agents, called for Congress to make domestic terrorism a federal crime to ensure investigators and prosecutors have the “best tools” to fight it.
The punishment for mass killings range from life imprisonment to execution, regardless of the label applied to the crime. If a shooter dies, which was the case in both California and Ohio, experts said a federal law would help authorities gather evidence and serve as a deterrent. The legal framework is different in international terrorism cases, where a wide-reaching statute makes it illegal to support any groups designated foreign terrorist organzations, such as Islamic State or al-Qaida and often produces arrests long before violence occurs. As a result, it’s a crime for an American to fly to Syria to join Islamic State, but it’s not illegal for an American to travel in the U.S. to meet with Ku Klux Klan leaders or other white supremacist groups.
The way domestic terrorism is currently defined is broad enough to encompass the activities of several prominent activist campaigns and organizations. Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island, WTO protesters, and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to investigation as engaging in domestic terrorism. In the 2001 Vieques Island protests, demonstrators illegally entered a military installation where the United States government was engaging in regular bombing exercises, attempting to engage in civil disobedience. This conduct would fall within the definition of domestic terrorism because the protesters broke federal law by unlawfully entering the airbase and their acts were for the purpose of influencing a government policy by intimidation or coercion. The act of trying to disrupt bombing exercises arguably created a danger to human life - their own and those of military personnel.
Senate bill S.894 - Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act of 2019 deals with designating white supremacists as domestic terrorists, was sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin and introduced back in March. So far the latest action on the bill was that it was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary.