Saturday, August 30, 2014

Domestic Terrorism – Words Matter

Sometimes the government is not as stupid as it seems.  It just seems to be as stupid as it seems.   A number of (mostly conservative – example ) media sources have objected to the just released National Threat Assessment for Domestic Extremism because it does not list Muslim radicals as a threat. They are wrong. The omission is not as grave as it seems.
Domestic Terrorism is an act of terrorism conducted by a domestic resident over a domestic issue.  White separatists, Black Power advocates, animal rights extremists, some work place attackers -- all are domestic actors upset about purely domestic issues. This was the subject of the disputed report.
            International Terrorism is an act of terrorism by an international actor over an international issue. The 9/11 attackers were foreign nationals unhappy about US actions overseas.
            Homegrown Terrorism is an act of terrorism by a domestic resident over an international issue. The Boston Bombing was an act of Homegrown Terrorism. 
            So the FBI report is correct -- I do not know of any Muslim radicals or Muslim groups who are threatening to mount terrorist attacks in the US over purely domestic issues.
            Is there a reason to make such distinctions?  Yes.  If the motivations and capabilities are different, then the analysis and counter actions must be different. The Cosa Nostra’s deliberate murder of a judge, and an individual’s impulsive of murder a spouse are both murders, but should be approached quite differently.  The same is true of terrorism.
            Are the definitions really as clear as I have suggested?  No.  The Department of State  and Department of Justice are still using different definitions of terrorism in their programs, so it is no surprise that there is confusion even among experts.
            And by the way -- this distinction is going to get sticky in the near future.  What should we call the crime in England where a radical Muslim murdered a member of the British Army band in the street?  The attacker was a domestic resident. But was he motivated by unhappiness about Britain's involvement overseas, or the role of Muslims in British society at home?  That's not clear, maybe even to him. So was he a homegrown terrorist or domestic terrorist? 
            Here is one final question. It should have been clear to anyone who works these issues that the American press and the American people would be confused by the new report. Why not explain this distinction up front?
Great question.  I have no answer.  But this seems to be in the tradition of saying and doing things destined to alarm the public, then refusing to explain the action.  Like buying billions of rounds of hollow point ammunition, then claiming it is to protect post offices. Seems pretty stupid.  Maybe it's not. But it sure seems that way.

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