A bunch of armed white guys have taken over a building in a wildlife refuge in Oregon, and liberal Twitter is going a little nuts because the media isn’t calling it “terrorism.”
FYI – If you're occupying govt property with signs, it's a protest. If you're occupying with guns, it's terrorism. #OregonUnderAttack
— Stephen Lautens (@stephenlautens) January 4, 2016
— Matt (@MattNowak1) January 3, 2016
Did I miss the call for the national guard in Oregon? I recall them in Ferguson and Baltimore. #OregonUnderAttack
— rolandsmartin (@rolandsmartin) January 3, 2016
150 domestic terrorists take over a fed building. Can only assume there's wall-to-wall cable news coverage, right? Oh. #OregonUnderAttack
— Sahand (@Sahand_1) January 3, 2016
It’s a lot easier to send camera crews to a St. Louis suburb than to a remote wildlife refuge, and they won’t be allowed as close to the action as they are in urban protests, but I understand the point: If a bunch of black people had done this, the usual law-and-order dipsticks would be screaming about terrorism. (And if a bunch of middle-eastern-looking people had done this, we’d have Presidential candidates calling for a drone strike.) So it seems weird when people are all of a sudden getting really sensitive about labels.
I get that. I know there are people who wanted to carpet bomb the Ferguson protesters because somebody burned down a QuikTrip, and now the same kinds of people are talking about the Oregon protesters “standing up to tyrannical government” over western U.S. land management issues. It’s natural to be angry that a bunch of white ranchers are being treated more sympathetically than black folks from the city. But the injustice here is not that white ranchers are being treated well, but that black people are treated so poorly.
The definitions of words like terrorism are inherently somewhat arbitrary and shifting, but I grew up in the 1970s, and terrorism back then meant shooting or kidnapping people, blowing things up, and hijacking airplanes. Basically, it was guerrilla warfare against non-combatants.
Whenever we get into an argument about definitions, I find it’s helpful to ask why the definition matters. All the activities that make up typical terrorism — killing people, blowing things up, kidnapping — are already defined as crimes, so what is the point of identifying some criminal act as terrorism? I’ve been thinking about my own mental definition of terrorism, and it seems to consist of three parts: (1) killing, kidnapping, or seriously hurting non-combatants or doing massive property damage, (2) by perpetrators who present an ongoing threat (3) to advance a political cause. The point of defining terrorism this way is that it identifies a pattern of dangerous crime that does not end with a single incident. It’s a continuing threat of serious violence that has to be investigated and fought. That’s what makes it different from most other kinds of crime.
Under my definition of terrorism, the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon is not terrorism. You don’t have to like my definition, but if you’re going to insist that this incident is terrorism despite the lack of shooting or explosions or any kind if injury, can you explain to me why it matters? What’s so important about calling this terrorism?
That seems plausible. The Black Panthers got into gunfights with the police on numerous occasions, and when MOVE occupied a building in Philadelphia the police literally bombed it, killing 11 people, including children, and burning down an entire city block. In fact, in response to events in Oregon, someone at ThinkProgress even tweeted a picture of the MOVE fire:
— ThinkProgress (@thinkprogress) January 4, 2016
But I guess my question is, if you’re complaining that the situation in Oregon isn’t being called “terrorism,” is it because you want that to happen to the white guys occupying the MNWR building?
I certainly hope not. While I think it’s likely that a bunch of armed black people who took over a government building would be treated a lot worse than the white guys in Oregon, I don’t think the solution is encourage the government and the media to treat the white people worse.
Some people have claimed that the militia group’s actions at MNWR meet the federal definition of terrorism in 18 USC 2331. I don’t know if that’s true (“acts dangerous to human life” could be twisted a number of ways), but I don’t see why anyone who’s not a lawyer (or a defendant) should care about the legal definition. Remember, this is the same body of law that says putting your own money in your own bank account is the crime of money laundering if you do it wrong. Unless we’re talking specifically about criminal charges, why should we let the technical language of law affect how we talk?
If you look at the huge list of things described as terrorism in the Patriot Act, almost every one of them is already illegal. So calling these things “terrorism” doesn’t make them illegal — they’re already crimes — it just allows prosecutors to demand ever harsher penalties. Since we already have a larger percentage of prisoners than any other country, is it really wise to encourage prosecutors to be harsher?
Ever since 9/11 (or maybe the Oklahoma City bombing) law enforcement and national intelligence agencies have been trying to make themselves seem more important — and not incidentally get more funding — by defining terrorism down to include all kinds of crimes. Hacking into a corporation’s servers is now “cyberterrorism” and cutting fishing nets and freeing captive animals is called “ecoterrorism”. In the media, people are calling Black Lives Matter protesters “terrorists” and claiming that blocking entry to the Mall of America is “economic terrorism.” In California, being in a gang or helping a gang member commit a crime is called “street terrorism.” Kids who post violent rap lyrics on Facebook are now charged with making “terroristic threats.” Some of those actions are definitely crimes, and others might be, but it’s a ridiculous stretch to call any of these crimes “terrorism.”
As for the armed white guys occupying the wildlife refuge, I’m just guessing, but I’m pretty sure the authorities could charge them for breaking into the building, for staying after being asked to leave, and for keeping other people out with threats of violence. Some of those crimes probably have gun enhancements, and there are probably conspiracy charges all the way around for the leaders. And that’s without a shot being fired or anyone getting hurt. Tacking on terrorism charges is unnecessary overkill.
Well, I’ve been complaining about the over-criminalization of practically everything for a long time here at Windypundit, usually in the context of the War On Drugs. This isn’t the best time, it’s just one more time.
Perhaps a better question is why do I think nice liberal people should back off on demanding that the situation in Oregon be called “terrorism”? My answer is that when it comes to tough-on-crime attitudes, what goes around, comes around.
Dwight and Steven Hammond, the jailed farmers at the center of this conflict, may be learning this the hard way. I’m just guessing, but I’ll bet that when legislatures first started passing harsh mandatory minimum laws, the Hammonds and most of their right-wing supporters in the wildlife refuge thought it was a great way to to put thugs in jail. And when Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996, the Hammonds and their supporters probably approved of getting tough on terrorists. They must have been surprised as hell to learn that the AEDPA meant they would be facing five-year minimum sentences because fires they started on their own land got out of control.
For the folks on the left, it’s all fun and games watching right-wing white guys get in deep trouble, but getting tough on crime has a funny way of turning into massive incarceration of young male minorities. If the nice liberal people crying “terrorism” get their way, it could end up influencing the way prosecutors charge crimes, and it could encourage lawmakers to pass tough new laws to fight “right-wing anti-government terrorism.” Then a few years from now those same nice liberal people will be angry that 18-year-old black kids are being charged with some new crime called “terroristic damage to federal property” because they broke in and spray painted “Black Lives Matter” on the walls of a post office.