“I can’t say anything… I’m barely breathing,” Berry Werber, a survivor of the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre, recalled. The recent events of this massacre, as well the pipe bomb mailings to left-leaning leaders highlights an strange dynamic that America is currently in. Many people regard these attacks as hate crimes — and they are. However, these crimes can also be categorized as domestic terrorism.

Yet, many people don’t understand what qualifies as domestic terrorism. Cases like the San Bernardino shooting illustrate a clear understanding of what domestic terrorism is. However, people like Dylann Roof and his shooting are more ambiguous because it is typically associated with hate crimes as opposed to purely motivated by a terrorist agenda. It is now more prudent than ever to establish what domestic terrorism actually is and potential solutions to mitigate issues of domestic terrorism. However,  the perpetrators do not typically get charged for terrorism because there isn’t a domestic terrorism law. America needs to begin establishing domestic terrorism laws and increasing law enforcement methods and training to better defend against potential domestic terrorist threats.

The Differences of Domestic Terrorism: What qualifies as domestic terrorism?

Operationalizing a definition of domestic terrorism:

The differences of the Dylann Roof shooting and San Bernardino massacre lead to ambiguities that make the San Bernardino massacre an act of terrorism, but Roof’s actions as more of a hate crime. But when applying the differences of these cases under a single definition by the USA PATRIOT Act, they both become clear acts of terrorism.

Under the USA PATRIOT Act, it states how domestic terrorism is defined as including all “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;  (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.” This definition is typically sponsored by the FBI as the leading definition of domestic terrorism.

Analyzing Dylann Roof’s Case

On June 17, 2015, at approximately 9:00 PM EST, a 21-year old white male named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. However, there is much debate on whether or not Roof’s actions actually constituted terrorism. In one camp, people think this crime was purely out of hate. In the other camp, people think this is starts to look more like domestic terrorism. However, some academics contend that Roof’s actions fit the criteria of domestic terrorism under the FBI and United States PATRIOT Act.

When applying the operationalized definition of domestic terrorism to Dylann Roof, it becomes apparent as to how Dylann Roof matches the definition of domestic terrorism. Roof shot and killed nine people in which there was a particular intention to intimidate the African American community. Furthermore, his motivations were because he was racist. Lastly, this act occurred within U.S. territory. Therefore, all the criteria of domestic terrorism in the case of Dylann Roof are met under the USA PATRIOT Act.

Analyzing San Bernardino

The case of the San Bernardino massacre is a more clear-cut case of domestic terrorism. On December 2nd, 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik opened fire on Farook’s office holiday party, killing 14 and wounding 22. In applying the USA PATRIOT Act to this case, it becomes very clear as to how this is a case of domestic terrorism. The death of 14 civilians satisfies the first criteria of the definition. The motives, however, are a bit different than that of Roof’s case. According to authorities, Farook and Malik were both radicalized by the Islamic State on the internet. ISIS seeks to kill any sort of opposition to Islam – particularly Western states; Farook and Malik were motivated by the overarching goals that ISIS has.

What about the pipe bomber and the Synagogue shooting?

While both these cases are still undergoing investigation, both are still subject to the definition of domestic terrorism by the USA PATRIOT Act. In regards to the pipe bomber, it was clearly motivated to kill and intimidate left-leaning politicians and leaders. Furthermore, if the perpetrator’s attempt was successful, it could have had serious implications for political violence in the United States. In regards to the Synagogue shooting, though the targets were different, the intention was the same: to intimidate a specific group of Americans.

Rather than thinking that these cases are all acts of hatred and violence, the operationalization of the definition of domestic terrorism allows us to see these cases in an entirely different way. The current events of the pipe bomber or synagogue shooting are not simply acts of spreading a political message. We may formally regard these acts of domestic terrorism, and because of that, it provides a rude-awakening to Americans that domestic terrorism is present in the United States, and the U.S. must engage in new laws and training methods for police to mitigate these issues.

The Current Problem and How to Solve It

Right now, America does not have any domestic terrorism laws. During the Obama Administration, Justice Department officials tended to rely on other statutes to prosecute ideologically motivated violence by people within the United States. This, however, makes it difficult to monitor how frequent extremists driven by religious, racial, or anti-government sentiments commit violence in the United States. Moreover, by only relying on other statutes to prosecute these criminals, the universal definition of domestic terrorism becomes blurred. Some officials, though, would prefer just to categorize domestic terrorism in the same moral plane as international terrorism.

Fig. 1: Background of Domestic Terrorists
Source: Forbes

Another problem is the fact that law enforcement is not readily prepared for such events of domestic terrorism. While the Bureau of Justice Assistance — an office headed by the Justice Department dedicated to helping local law enforcements better their operations — has established the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training Program to better combat terrorist attacks, it is still not efficient. The RAND Corporation conducted an assessment on current state and local SLATT programs. In particular, the assessment found that out of the 10 workshop participants, only 6 of them indicated that the information in state and local counter-terrorism training programs changed their approaches to international terrorism or domestic terrorism and how they might investigate them. On the macro scale, it might be prudent to say that many law enforcement agencies feel the same way. Furthermore, the majority of survey respondents in this assessment demonstrated that they had participated in only one or two counter-terrorism trainings in the past five years. This kind of lack of participation is unacceptable. What’s more, there tends to be a backlog of SLATT requests, which only exacerbates the issue of non-participation by local law enforcement.

The Solution

An actual domestic terrorism law needs to be instated so the government is able to have these individuals no longer classified as criminals, but terrorists, and held accountable accordingly. Historically, the Justice Department has reserved the title of terrorist to befit foreign organizations. However, as shown through the operationalization of the USA PATRIOT Acts definition of terrorism, it becomes prudent to also deem the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooter, the pipe bomber, and other criminals as terrorists.

Domestic terrorism laws would be subject to intense scrutiny by civil liberties groups, as suspicions around the laws would increase public hesitation around the law. However, with a domestic terrorism law, these perpetrators would not have multiple charges against them. With more charges against the perpetrators, it becomes harder to follow trends of terrorism because law enforcement and the Justice Department will have too many charges to follow up on in the legal system. In other words, too many charges makes the bureaucratic system of legal prosecution more difficult. Instead, one charge would be sufficient in sentencing them to jail.

Moreover, domestic terrorism laws would also give local law enforcement greater capabilities to actually combat domestic terror threats. In particular, a new domestic terrorism law could grant greater ability to address issues of terrorism. For instance, the law could give the authority to apply some of the same tools in a domestic investigation as federal law enforcement utilizes, rather than just passing on information to the FBI. Local law enforcement may also be able to use secret warrants to monitor communications, as the FBI has for international investigations. This allows for greater mobility for local law enforcement to stop terrorism threats. In other words, instead of always going through the FBI, which means more bureaucracy and longer response times, local law enforcement can get the job done much faster.

In regards to SLATT workshops, better planning is needed if there is a backlog of workshop requests. Moreover, local law enforcement agencies have to travel to these SLATT workshops, which may be far away from their area of service. One way to ensure better planning for these kinds of workshops is to increase the amount of “train-the-trainer” workshops. Train-the-trainer workshops are where someone who has experience in counter-terrorism operations in law enforcement advise other law enforcement personnel who are responsible for training new recruits. By increasing the amount of train-the-trainer workshops, this may reduce the backlog of SLATT workshops because there would be more people who are equipped to train new recruits. It also means that trainers are the only ones who have to travel to SLATT workshops, as opposed to the entire workforce.

However, addressing actual participation in SLATT workshops is equally important. The fact that the respondents in the RAND Corporation survey only attended one or two SLATT workshops in the past five years speaks to the fact that there might be not a lot of interest in the threats. Many of the discussions of local threats vary within SLATT workshops, and if multiple law enforcement officers are coming to these workshops from different towns and cities, they may find such discussions as unimportant because not all local threats are pertinent to them. What needs to happen is fostering an environment in which all law enforcement officers actually care about each local terror threat. In order to do so, there needs to be greater networking between these law enforcement agencies. Different law enforcement personnel need to have greater dialogue with each other because it will allow for greater mobility in stopping potential threats. What also needs to happen is having all these law enforcement agencies understand what these local threats means to law enforcement as a whole, not to a specific city, town, or county. By doing so, this will perhaps allow for greater discussion on how to coordinate with other agencies in order to stop potential terrorist threats, thereby increasing greater collaboration and turnout for SLATT workshops.

Featured Image Source: New York Times

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