The T-word

In light of the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, by a 64 year-old white man whose political or religious motivation, if any, remains unknown, I’ve seen much of this kind of thing on social media:

Because when you want a nuanced and informed discussion of legal issues and systemic racism, you turn to Twitter.

Huffpost explains why law enforcement officials are avoiding the T-word for the time being:

There’s a reason that law enforcement authorities are hesitant to label an attack like the one in Las Vegas as terrorism. Specific federal statutes target international terrorism and acts associated with groups that the U.S. government has labeled as foreign terrorist organizations. But there’s no specific federal statute aimed at acts of domestic terrorism, meaning acts inspired or carried out on behalf of domestic extremist organizations. Some federal laws are aimed at particular acts that might be carried out for terrorist purposes, like hijacking planes or assassinating government officials, but mass shootings are not on that list.

So had Stephen Paddock lived, it’s unlikely that he would have faced federal terrorism charges. And unless authorities turn up evidence that his attack was motivated by hatred for a specific racial group ― which is unlikely, given that he fired indiscriminately into a crowd of thousands ― there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have faced any federal charges at all.

[…]

…it’s not clear the Las Vegas massacre would qualify as an act of domestic terrorism. There is a federal definition of the term ― yes, even though there isn’t a charge. An act of domestic terrorism must be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence a government policy by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping. We don’t know yet if Paddock had any of those goals in mind.

There is a Nevada state law which may define the Vegas massacre as terrorism, but not a federal one.  The ACLU, notably, is wary of what would actually be targeted by a specific law against “domestic terrorism”:

In the U.S., there’s still a great deal of reluctance to create a criminal charge of domestic terrorism.

“It’s an incredibly broad label,” Hina Shamsi, director of the national security project at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NPR in August following the white nationalist rally car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“There’s a real danger of the government criminalizing ideology, theology and beliefs rather than focusing on specific criminal acts,” she said.

According to Shamsi, the ACLU opposes any such law, because it believes it infringes on free speech and religion and could be politicized and used against groups like anti-war groups or environmental activists.

Reason’s Ed Krayewski made a similar point after Charlottesville:

The FBI has specific legal criteria it uses to define international terrorism, domestic terrorism, and the federal crime of terrorism. To be terrorist, an act must appear to intend to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” The federal offense is defined as a criminal act “calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct.”

In political rhetoric, by contrast, the word is frequently deployed as a thought-terminating cliché—a way to promote the idea that some military or police activity should be permitted to occur outside of the constraints of the Constitution, particularly against certain classes of people. In the last few decades, and particularly since 9/11, those classes of people have tended to be Muslim.

[…]

At the beginning of his term as attorney general, Holder sought to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. This was the right instinct. Terrorists are criminals with political ideas, but they are still criminals. The term terrorism is used to strip those criminals—and many noncriminals—of longstanding legal protections. And its ultimate effect has been to make it politically harder to defend the idea of treating “terrorism” as a law enforcement issue, often while creating the space for even more terrorism.

The Shawn Kings of the world want the definition of “terrorism” to encompass more white guys, but they aren’t the only ones who will be caught up in the net.  They should be very careful what they wish for.

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Why the foiled Halifax shooting plot (allegedly) wasn’t terrorism

This Canadian Press article by Laura Kane explains how the distinction between “terrorism” and mere criminal activity can be blurry, and why the alleged plot to shoot up the Halifax Shopping Centre this past weekend doesn’t qualify as a terror plot:

Police said there is no evidence that ideology or culture is part of the allegations. But if plotting to cause mass murder in a public place is not called terrorism, then what is?

Defining terrorism is a complex task, one that has preoccupied governments since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, experts say. And with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s new anti-terror bill before Parliament, taking a closer look at the Canadian definition is all the more crucial.

“The problem of defining terrorism has been a thorny one from the get-go,” said terrorism expert John Thompson, vice president of Strategic Capital and Intelligence Group.

“Terrorism overlaps with so many other activities. When does a violent protest become terrorism? When does some sort of psychotic episode where someone is acting out become terrorism? It’s a very hazy border.”

In Canada, section 83.01 of the Criminal Code defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with the intention of intimidating the public’s security or compelling a person, government or organization to do or refrain from doing an act.

[…]

Andrew Mack, a security expert and professor in the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University, called the alleged Halifax plot a “deadly criminal offence,” but not a terrorist one.

“The important point there is political intent, and ‘political’ is fairly widely interpreted,” he said. “If we’re talking about (ISIS), for example, they will always justify what they’re doing in religious terms. But as far as law enforcement is concerned, that’s political.”

That’s the question: were the shooters motivated by any religious or political ideology?  A widely-shared article by Robert Devet, for the Halifax Media Co-op, argues that the would-be shooters’ fascination with Nazism is being downplayed:

The Tumblr blog of James Gamble, the 19-year old found dead in Timberlea, features pictures of Adolph Hitler and marching Nazis.

You go to the Tumblr blog of Lindsay Kantha Souvannarath, the Illinois woman now in custody, and a swastika is the first thing you see.

Meanwhile, thanks to the work of people who know their way around in the world of blogs, message boards and handles, there are strong suggestions that at least Souvannarath has along-time infatuation with fascist and white supremacist ideas.  None of this has made it into Nova Scotia news outlets.

One CBC reporter looked at Gamble’s Tumblr blog, and mentions the Nazi references in passing, almost as an afterthought.

The same for a Chronicle Herald story, where a reference to Nazi images warrants one sentence.

You have to wonder whether coverage would have changed in tone had the plotters been Muslims, and had the Tumblr images been of Osama Bin Laden, or ISIS militants?

That’s a good question, actually.  Justin Bourque, who murdered three RCMP during his shooting rampage in Moncton, was apparently motivated at least in part by his radical anti-government, anti-police beliefs, yet he wasn’t charged with terrorism-related offences.

Islamist terrorism is a very serious threat – we saw that in Copenhagen this past weekend, right around the same time as the Halifax plotters were being charged.  But not all terrorists are Muslims – and, it goes without saying, not all Muslims are terrorists.