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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How seriously do we take domestic terrorism?

As used in this chapter... (5) the term "domestic terrorism" means activities that - (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended - (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.

FindLaw: Title 18 - Part I - Chapter 113B

Scott Roeder murdered Dr. George Tiller at church in Wichita, KS, last Sunday. To restate the obvious, this was an act dangerous to human life, a violation of the criminal laws of the United States, and appeared to be intended to intimidate a civilian population (providers or possibly recipients of abortion services) and to influence the policy of a government by intimidation (that policy being related to current laws concerning abortion). The murder happened in the United States. Thus, domestic terrorism. I'm glad we've cleared that up.

Now, when it comes to terrorism, there are all sorts of legal subtleties that are beyond me. (a) This is a definition used in laws at the federal level, but there are a couple of dozen states that also have terrorism laws that may differ. (b) I don't know what role legal definitions play in the decision to charge someone with a crime. (c) The legal definition doesn't match everyone's everyday understanding: Edgar Morales, a New York City gang member, was convicted on terrorist charges when he fired a gun into a crowd in 2002, murdering a young girl. (d) The notion that some acts are terrorism because they appear to be intended to intimidate strikes me as having too many untestable qualifications. (e) And so forth. But let all that go--I think Roeder's actions fall pretty clearly within the scope of the definition.

Here's the strange thing: Roeder has not been charged with terrorism. In contrast, Abdulhakim Muhammad, who murdered Private William Long just a day later outside an Army-Navy Career Center in Little Rock, AK, has been charged as a terrorist. The difference in treatment may be due to the legal complexities I've alluded to above; I don't know. But I found it strange to read this in the Washington Post today:

The man charged with murdering a high-profile abortion doctor claimed from his jail cell Sunday that similar violence was planned around the nation for as long as the procedure remained legal, a threat that comes days after a federal investigation launched into his possible accomplices.

and

Scott Roeder called The Associated Press from the Sedgwick County jail, where he's being held on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the shooting of Dr. George Tiller one week ago. "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal," Roeder said. When asked by the AP what he meant and if he was referring to another shooting, he refused to elaborate further.

Consider: We capture a man who has just committed a high-profile murder, on the face of it an act of domestic terrorism, and a week later he's calling the news media from jail to publicize "similar events" planned for the future. Is this an indication of how seriously we take domestic terrorism?

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