Following the tragic mass shooting in El Paso, Texas in early August, there has been a political push to make domestic terrorism into a federal crime.
As it now stands, a federal statute defining domestic terrorism exists, but federal terrorism cases are generally prosecuted only when there is an international motivation or connection — such as with ISIS or al Qaeda.
Proponents of making domestic terrorism a federal crime also include the FBI Agents Association, former Acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Mary B. McCord, and other current and former law enforcement officials.
On the other hand, civil rights advocates are concerned that laws targeting people who commit political violence would infringe on First Amendment rights or allow government prosecutorial overreach.
What Is Domestic Terrorism?
Sometimes referred to as “homegrown terrorism”, domestic terrorism involves acts dangerous to human lives committed with the intention of intimidating, coercing, or influencing national policy.
Domestic terrorism differs from international terrorism because it typically is committed against the civilian population or infrastructure of a nation within that nation and/or by citizens of that nation.
Federal statutes permit federal intervention, investigation, and interception of international terrorism, but no such laws currently exist for domestic terrorism. Such acts are not classified as a specific federal offense.
Pros and Cons to Making Domestic Terrorism a Federal Offense
Under Senator McSally’s new bill, domestic terrorism would be made into a new federal crime. The senator’s legislation would make it illegal to kill, kidnap, harm, or threaten another person with the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence the conduct or policy of a government.
Advocates Want to Stop Domestic Terrorism Before It Happens
Under existing state laws, law enforcement is not allowed to allocate the resources needed to stop domestic terror plots before they occur.
Advocates for new federal domestic terrorism laws say the legislation will give the FBI the necessary tools to stop domestic terrorism – in a nutshell, prevent the attack before it actually happens.
In addition, proponents note McSally’s bill is narrow enough to avoid treading on civil liberties. For example, the legislation does not prohibit all materials that support domestic organizations, rather only the ones proven to be used to further a domestic terrorism offense.
Finally, supporters point out the symbolic value of raising domestic terrorism to the moral status of international terroristic events.
In many cases, authorities categorize acts committed by Muslim perpetrators as terrorism but acts committed by non-Muslims as mass shootings.
McSally’s legislation would help reduce the stigmatization of Muslim communities rather than perpetuating a false suggestion that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
Opponents argue that proposed laws on domestic terrorism would allow federal agents to mistakenly crackdown on those with gun collections, random tools, and chemicals, labeling them as organizers planning to commit acts of domestic terrorism.
Further, critics say that existing state laws already criminalize terrorist acts like murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy—and that is in addition to existing federal laws that apply to domestic terrorism as well as international terrorism.
Opponents of new domestic terrorism legislation also feel that it poses a threat to the right to free speech, free association, and due process of the law.
As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has argued in the past, “The surveillance, labeling, and incarceration of protesters…because of their alleged criminal or terrorist activity is a well-worn trope. And while it may not surprise, it should still shock.”
One thing is for certain: the issue is not one of color, religion, or race.
While the need for additional resources and stronger leadership necessary to tackle the growing problem of domestic terrorism is evident, we should ask ourselves whether expanding the government’s surveillance powers is truly the answer.