Sunday, November 29, 2015

Narrowing the Definition of Terrorism: Encapsulating The Patriot Act

We need to have some clarity on the definition of 'terrorism'. Not just for the sake of keeping the discourse cohesive, but because this is how our justice system dies.

My preferred definition for terrorism is: 'Violence targeting civilians for the purpose of generating fear'. This is the one I learned from Dr Kleinberg in Poli Sci 334. I'm sure there are others but I think this one wraps it up.

The idea is that civilians are not of any strategic value. It does not make sense to target them for the purpose of reducing your enemy's capability. However, if you attack civilians you create fear amongst that population. Fear can then translate into political pressure on the government to address the agenda of the attackers. Moving their agenda to the front burner is the terrorists goal.

The race of the attacker is irrelevant, the religion of the attacker is irrelevant, the ideology of the attacker, the number of victims, the methodology and weapons used . . . all irrelevant. If the target was random, non-strategic civilians and the motive was to 'terrify' other civilians into affecting the policy process, we have terrorism. Otherwise, not terrorism.

The net effect of adopting this definition is that a lot of events from the past 10-15 years or so that have been characterized as 'terrorism' cease to qualify. Attacks on military personnel or facilities are immediately disqualified. Attacks on US government installations overseas are immediately disqualified. Attacks on individuals or institutions seen as instrumental in some conflict are immediately disqualified . . . yep, this is where I'm going to start losing people.

"Why should we let them off the hook?" some might say. "Why shouldn't we pile as many charges on those assholes as we possibly can?" Here's why...

With the introduction of legislation like The Patriot Act, we have created an off-ramp for our justice system. The otherwise inviolable Contitutional pillars of American justice such as presumed innocence, right to a fair trial, burden of proof, etc. are all overlooked when we feel like charging someone with 'terrorism'.

"But we only make these exceptions in terrorism cases," some apologist might say. "We needn't worry that the precedent set by the Patriot Act will bleed over into other realms of criminal justice."

Unless of course, we broaden the definition of terrorism to include ecoterror, narcoterror, info-terror, cyberterror, terror thought, etc. If we then rationalize that 'hate crimes' are a form of terror we can rope in 'hate speech' and just about everything else until our entire criminal justice system has taken the Patriot Act off-ramp and we're no longer Americans.

The Patriot Act was bad enough with narrowest of scope. Tossing the word 'terrorism' around with casual abandon gently widens that scope until it's all inclusive. Let's not facilitate that with sloppy language.

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