Over the past week, three domestic terrorists wreaked havoc on our nation. A 56 year old Florida man has been arrested for sending over a dozen pipe bombs via mail to prominent former or current Democratic officials or famous liberal figures; fortunately, the bombs did not detonate, and no one as killed or injured by the devices. Last Wednesday, a man attempted to enter a predominantly African American church in Jefferson, Kentucky and, failing to get inside, drove to a nearby a Kroger grocery store, where he fatally shot 69 year old Maurice Stallard inside the store and 67 year old Vickie Jones in the store’s parking lot. The suspected shooter is white; both victims were black. And on Saturday, a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered 11 people and injured several others before being captured by police; the shooting is the worst attack against Jewish Americans in the country’s history. These three perpetrators all identify as white, have expressed racist views in their past and made white nationalist or racist statements surrounding their crimes. Their attacks have therefore been labeled or investigated as “hate crimes.”
These attacks all occurred on American soil, clearly cost or endangered multiple peoples’ lives, and appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce segments of the population or government. They therefore all meet the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism, and yet none of the three individuals arrested for these attacks are likely to be charged as terrorists. It is important to recognize domestic terrorism for what it is, and to acknowledge that domestic right-wing terror attacks in the US have killed almost as many people as jihadist terrorism since 9/11/2001. Because government officials are often reluctant to call right-wing or other non-internationally linked terrorist acts “terrorism, the media often follows the government’s lead in its framing of such incidents, creating an atmosphere where discourse on terrorism focuses on Islamic or non-white actors. Labeling these attacks as terrorism may change the discourse that legitimize the rhetoric that may have inspired these individuals, which could in turn decrease the likelihood of these types of attacks in the future.
Publicly labeling right-wing or white nationalist violence as terrorism can only have a so much impact, however, without complementary legal reforms. Under US law, domestic terrorism is defined but is not actually a crime; that is, there is no domestic terrorism statute that can be used to charge a perpetrator. Thus, even when domestic attacks by white nationalists are labeled “domestic terrorism” by the US Attorney General, this designation has no legal bearing. In contrast, somewhere between 339 and 627 individuals were convicted in federal court of international terrorism-related charges. Similarly, although the US government keeps a list of designated foreign terrorist organizations and can (and does) charge US citizens who provide “material support” to such groups, the DOJ has no official terrorist designation for domestic groups; in other words, giving money to ISIS can land an American citizen in federal prison for 15 years, but giving money to the Ku Klux Klan is generally perfectly legal
Two thirds of Americans surveyed would support domestic terrorism legislation; nearly half assume that it is already in place. Passing a domestic terrorism law, however, raises important issues, such as those concerning the First Amendment freedom of speech and the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process. In short, even those vehemently opposed to racist or bigoted organizations may be hesitant to infringe upon the rights of those within those groups to express whatever views they want to express, a fundamental right within US law and history. There are also more specific concerns that a potential domestic terrorism law might still be used in biased ways, for example, to target leftist organizations using non-lethal tactics or African American or other minority groups.. With the general increase in hate groups and the horrible events of the past week, however, the debate over the tradeoffs of wider action on domestic terrorism have been reignited.