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Yeomans’ work on defining terrorism


William Yeomans does a better than usual job of articulating the Mass murder or terrorism? debate. I’m not sure this is really a compliment.

In an article written (I think) just a few hours before the announcement about the San Bernardino shooting, he starts by stating the definition turns on intent, always a good place to start when talking about crime. But first:

The debate has more significance in ideological and partisan battles than it does in the law.

K. And:

…there is no statute that allows the federal government to charge an individual with the crime of “domestic terrorism.”

I’m not sure how this is relevant because I’m not sure who the author is addressing when he informs the reader that there is no way the fed can charge someone with “domestic terrorism.” No matter, back to intent.

He excludes “mentally deranged individuals” – James Holmes, Adam Lanza, Sueng-Hui Cho, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – because they just wanted to kill a lot of people. However, if you want to kill lots of people and indicate that you’re driven by some sort of ideology, then that’s evidence of intent and so it could be terrorism.

The killings send a broad and chilling message that abortion will be met with violence. It seems likely that Robert Dear, who reportedly vowed “no more body parts” to law enforcement, falls into this category. Similarly, according to his writings, Dylann Roof slaughtered nine African Americans during bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston with the intent of starting a “race war.”

So. If we ignore the sloppy definition of mentally deranged the too tidy distinction between killing just because and killing because No More Baby Parts/Charles Manson Gambit, can we consider calling such acts terrorism?

Jamais de la vie!

Because these forms of domestic terrorism present distinct problems, we have adopted specialized statutes to address them. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act specifically punishes the use of force to injure, intimidate or interfere with people seeking or providing reproductive health services. Federal hate crime statutes specifically prohibit racially motivated violence. As a legal matter, therefore, it adds little to call this conduct terrorism.

OK, so it is terrorism. But we don’t need to call it terrorism because there are laws designed to address these forms of terrorism.

Or at least we don’t need to call it terrorism anymore. One assumes that Yeomans would say that before FACE and hate crime laws existed, these acts would have been terrorism because there was nothing else to call them. This seems like very continuinuinuum thinking to me, perhaps I need another quart of tea.

He does a good job of addressing the various motives driving leaders who are hesitant to leap up and shout Terrorism! And those of leaders who aren’t. Sometimes. And he concludes:

First, we should deemphasize focus on the term. It is inflammatory and makes little practical difference early in a criminal investigation.

I’m not sure who “we” is and how this de-emphasizing would occur. If he means Republicans should stop pointing at brown people and Qurans and dust bunnies that look sort of like Osama bin Laden if you sniff a Sharpie marker and screaming about terrorism every few seconds, I agree and have agreed since late 2001.

If he means the general press should dial things back a smidge … good luck fixing that broken machine. I guess if you’re going to dream, dream big?

We should instead await the word of the law:

Second, we should allow professional investigators to develop the evidence. As it emerges, fact-based determinations can be made whether the perpetrator acted with the necessary ideological intent that separates other forms of violence from terrorism.

And now the law has spoken. And with no offense at all to the Full Majesty of the Law, I’m still not sure why San Bernardino is terrorism, but Charleston is not.

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