The government rarely charges domestic extremists as terrorists.
Oct 27, 2018
Cesar Sayoc Jr., a registered Republican with a long criminal history, was arrested on Friday in connection with more than 10 mail bombs sent to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump. He was charged with five federal crimes, including threats against former presidents, but he was not charged with terrorism. And it’s a safe bet that unless it turns out that Sayoc was inspired by a foreign terrorist organization as opposed to domestic politics—which appears to be the case—terrorism won’t be added to the bill.
A perpetrator’s ideology should not dictate the nature of justice that he or she receives, but that is precisely what happens under today’s laws.
Although the secretary of state has designated almost 70 foreign terrorist organizations, the federal government does not officially designate domestic terrorist organizations or individuals. The U.S. legal code does define domestic terrorism: acts meant to intimidate a civilian population or influence government policy through coercion. It does not, however, identify penalties associated with it. As a result, individuals responsible for attacks that federal law enforcement would consider domestic terrorism often are not charged as terrorists.
The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was convicted of murder, and the Charleston church shooter, Dylann Roof, was convicted of federal hate crimes, despite the fact that both men’s actions clearly met the U.S. definition of terrorism. Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber—one of the most famous American terrorists, who earned his sobriquet sending bombs through the mail—pleaded guilty to illegally transporting, mailing, and using bombs, and to three counts of murder, but not to terrorism. And now the suspect responsible for the recent spate of mail bombs is unlikely to be charged with terrorism. But if he’d waved an ISIS flag instead of a MAGA hat, the story would be quite different.
The same violent crime is labeled and tried differently depending on what inspired it. This may seem like semantics, and thus inconsequential, but the terrorism label matters in part because it carries a powerful stigma. Describing domestic terrorists as terrorists can help to discredit them among potential supporters and isolate them from the wider public.
The United States has devoted immense resources to combating jihadist ideology over the past 17 years. Soon after 9/11, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia pressed the government there to rein in the religious establishment from promoting the radical Wahhabi doctrine that inspires many jihadists. “What you teach in your schools and preach in your mosques now is not an internal matter,” the ambassador told his Saudi counterparts. “It affects our national security.” Many homegrown terrorists are inspired by foreign jihadist ideology, but others are inspired by U.S. extremist movements. The government has not made a similar effort to hold this latter set of actors accountable.