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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Do we need a box called 'terrorism'?

During a recent panel I took part in on HuffPost Live, Brennan Center fellow and former FBI agent Mike German presented a compelling case against having a special category of government response for terrorism, arguing instead for treating terrorism as a violent crime problem. It's not the first time I've heard this argument, and it's not without its merits. German, whose work I admire even when I disagree with it, makes his point effectively.

The crux of this approach is that it prioritizes small-scale terrorism more appropriately, while robbing terrorism of its mystique and stripping away some of the meaning with which terrorists seek to imbue their actions.

But there's also a problem with this approach. The primary difference between ordinary crime and political crime -- such as terrorism, corruption, treason and hate crimes that specifically aim to violate a group's civil liberties -- is that the first seeks to circumvent the system of laws and civil society, while the latter aims to upend it, by manipulating or negating the outcome of democratic process through violence or other means.

For a system of laws to survive, there must be penalties for defying those laws, but the system also invariably -- and I would argue necessarily -- assigns greater weight to crimes which are fundamentally aimed the system itself.

Certainly in the age of independent actors (or to use the term I hate, lone wolves), ambiguities abound, and one guy with a gun is not going to topple the United States in a single act. But when such an act is carried out with a purpose to inspire others to do the same, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the government or institutionalizing the oppression of minorities, it's appropriate to take that crime more seriously than an act whose purview is simply to evade the law for more mundane reasons.

That doesn't mean we should prioritize terrorism over all other crimes and social issues, far from it. But as we have different categories for assault versus attempted murder, and insubordination versus treason, we need a category for terrorism. Intentions matter in law and in society. It is often difficult to unravel those questions, and we sometimes get it wrong, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Buy J.M. Berger's book, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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