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Terrorism: A Double Standard

By Sean A. Camoni

This article originally appeared in The Cross Examiner, Seton Hall School of Law’s student newspaper, Vol. I, Issue 1, March 2010. It also is posted on the Center for Policy & Research Fellows’ blog here.

A man with a grudge against the American government committed an unthinkable act of destruction, killing innocent people in a misguided and futile attempt to force his world view into being. The incident happened in Texas, and afterward, a trail of clues led investigators and the media to warning signs that had gone unnoticed. In the wake of the tragedy, disturbing video footage played on repeat on the cable news networks while talking heads speculated wildly with very little factual information.

This story describes not one tragedy, but two. On February 18, Andrew Joseph Stack lit his house on fire with his wife and daughter inside and flew his small piper aircraft into a federal building housing Interal Revenue Service offices in Austin. On November 5 of last year, military psychiatrist Major Malik Nadal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood military base in central Texas. Mr. Stack’s family escaped, but one federal employee was killed and 15 people were injured. Major Hasan killed 13 and wounded 30. Both were Americans. Both wrote online about their grievances with the United States government. Both killed innocent people, espousing abhorrent philosophies to justify their actions. But the response to these two events has been markedly different.

Some immediately labeled the Fort Hood massacre an act of terrorism. The magazine The New Republic proclaimed the killings an “act of jihad.” President Obama was widely criticized for not calling Major Hasan’s actions an act of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) suggested the motivations were more personal than ideological, stating that Major Hasan was unhappy about an imminent deployment. Major Hasan was eventually charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder. There have been no terrorism charges.

Mr. Stack spent months writing an anti-tax, anti-government screed that he posted online the morning of February 18. He concluded that his only solution was violence. Within hours of the plane crash, some Facebook pages celebrated Mr. Stack as a hero. Images of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and Thomas Jefferson’s quotation about the blood of tyrants and patriots watering the tree of liberty emerged across the internet, causing Facebook to remove several pages it believed were actual threats. Newly seated Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.), likened Mr. Stack’s government-aimed anger to frustrations he heard on the campaign trail. “No one likes to pay taxes,” Senator Brown said. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) called the attack a sad incident, but said if the IRS had been abolished when he’d first advocated it, Stack wouldn’t have had a target. Mostly, Mr. Stack has been portrayed as a lone, disturbed man, nothing more.

Federal criminal statutes under Title 18 of the U.S. Code define “domestic terrorism” as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

Major Hasan’s intentions remain unclear. If he wanted to die rather than deploy to a war zone, and this was his deranged method of suicide, then the intent elements of terrorism would not appear to be met. However, if his communications with a radical American cleric abroad in Yemen or his speeches and writings directed at fellow soldiers at home reveal evidence of an ideological bent, then the intent standard could be met.

Mr. Stack’s intentions are clear from his online manifesto. He concluded that violence was the answer, and hoped that “the American zombies wake up and revolt; it will take nothing less.” His actions appear intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population, influence government policy by intimidation or coercion and to affect the conduct of government by mass destruction and assassination. Under U.S. law, Mr. Stack’s actions constitute terrorism. And yet, no one has publicly used that term.

A lamentable double standard exists in America when, for committing like acts of violence, a Muslim man with an Arabic name is immediately labeled a terrorist, and a White man with a biblical first name and an Irish surname is not. Either these men are terrorists, or they are not.

As journalist Matt Duss writes, terrorism is not “any violence by any Muslim anywhere at any time for any reason.” Terrorism is terrorism, no matter the skin color, religion, or national origin of the perpetrator. And in the United States, terrorism is a crime.

As a nation, we will never be able to defeat an idea we cannot even define.

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