Friday, June 12, 2009

Is the man who killed Dr. George Tiller a terrorist?

Yes. Obviously.

Acting in concert with the ideas and rhetoric of radical anti-abortion groups, Scott Roeder allegedly (everybody knows why I have to say that) gunned down Dr. George Tiller in his church, not just to punish him for performing abortions, not just to stop him from performing abortions, but to sustain a climate of intimidation intended to make other doctors cease performing abortions.

Was Timothy McVeigh a terrorist?

Yes. Obviously, although his motivation to strike fear into government agents was a bit more diffuse and (in an abstract intellectual sense) difficult to pin down.

But now let's try a thought experiment:

Suppose Tim McVeigh had blown up the Murrah Federal Building with a truckload of fertilizer because he was working for a drug lord about to go on trial and had been ordered to eliminate several key witnesses regardless of the consequences.

Would he have been a terrorist then?

More difficult question? Well, let's see.

Here's the current FBI definition of terrorism:

Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Hmm. By that definition, McVeigh in my scenario would not have been a terrorist, because while he was certainly intending to coerce a segment of the civilian population (those who might ever think about testifying against drug dealers), it is difficult to argue that his actions would have been in furtherance of political of social objectives. [Unless, of course, you hew to the line that Libertarians arguing publicly for an end to the drug war are encouraging such violence.]

So: important point--it is possible to be a murderer, even a mass murderer, without being a terrorist.

At least depending on your definition.

The difficult thing about the FBI definition is that it defines the act of terrorism without ever defining the terrorist. That's not quite pure semantics, because let's look at the definition of terrorism in the US Code, which differs significantly:

the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;

OK, several key distinctions here:

1) According to the US Code, the violence has to be perpetrated aganst noncombatant targets [there are a lot of qualifiers as to what that means further down in the code], which raises an interesting issue. The killer of Dr. George Tiller definitely assassinated a noncombatant in every sense of the word. But what about Richard Poplawski [three cops in Pittsburgh] or Bernard Von Frumm [an armed security guard]. Are law enforcement officers non-combatants, especially on duty? In Von Frumm's case, since I suspect he was trying to take out the security guards first, so he could then concentrate on the unarmed, it is a moot point. With Poplawski it becomes murkier--even without getting into the question of whether or not a person with a history of mental illness can be determined as competent to commit politically motivated violence.

2) Note that the US Code is not at all specific about the reasons for the violence. The FBI is all into intimidation and coercion, but the US Code simply specifies premeditated politcal violence. Suppose I could show that Von Frumm had driven to Washington DC to stand outside the Holocaust Museum and spit obscenities at the people going in, and that someone had responded to him in such a way as to get him so pissed off he got his gun out of the truck and went inside in a rage to kill the bastard, but shot the security guard instead? According to the US Code, if it is not premeditated, it is not terrorism. That, of course, is what we have trials for, to determine issues of premeditation among other things. But it is interesting that the FBI definition does not require premeditation and the US Code definition does.

3) The US Code also specifies that for an act to be terrorism it must be commited by subnational groups or clandestine agents. This is critical, because it rules out in law the idea that anything a government ever did could be terrorism. It also seems, at least at first glance, to rule out the lone wolf [although with the concept of leaderless resistance that's a more difficult call these days]. In a 2007 article in The Guardian, Brian Whitaker points out:

Denying that states can commit terrorism is generally useful, because it gets the US and its allies off the hook in a variety of situations. The disadvantage is that it might also get hostile states off the hook - which is why there has to be a list of states that are said to "sponsor" terrorism while not actually committing it themselves.

Interestingly, the American definition of terrorism is a reversal of the word's original meaning, given in the Oxford English Dictionary as "government by intimidation". Today it usually refers to intimidation of governments.

The first recorded use of "terrorism" and "terrorist" was in 1795, relating to the Reign of Terror instituted by the French government. Of course, the Jacobins, who led the government at the time, were also revolutionaries and gradually "terrorism" came to be applied to violent revolutionary activity in general. But the use of "terrorist" in an anti-government sense is not recorded until 1866 (referring to Ireland) and 1883 (referring to Russia).

This becomes particularly interesting in light of the definition of terrorism from the 1998 Arab Convention for the Suppression of Terrorism:

Any act or threat of violence, whatever its motives or purposes, that occurs in the advancement of an individual or collective criminal agenda and seeking to sow panic among people, causing fear by harming them, or placing their lives, liberty or security in danger, or seeking to cause damage to the environment or to public or private installations or property or to occupying or seizing them, or seeking to jeopardize a national resources.

Notice that this definition does not rule out terrorism by a State [hello, Israel in Gaza, or the US bombing Iraq under the late 1990s no-fly zone.

So, let's bring this back to the issue of domestic terrorism, which is so hot right this moment.

This is akin to the reason that I don't like the concept of hate crimes.

Scott Roeder fits the definition of a terrorist, even if not acting on anybody's specific orders. His own post-arrest rhetoric makes that clear.

Bernard Von Frumm probably fits the definition of a terrorist, but under the US Code you would still have to prove premeditation, and with most 88-year-olds I know that is an interesting prospect.

Richard Poplawski arguably may not fit the definition of a terrorist, because [although without a trial we'll never know for sure] there is a question of whether he was mentally competent to have political motives, of whether he was operating from clinically delusional thinking. The three officers in question, however, are just as dead.

Go back to motivations for a moment, with the same three cases:

Scott Roeder was undeniably influenced by radical anti-abortion propaganda. Could he have been a Bill O'Reilly fan? I suppose it is possible, but the much more likely influence seems to have been something like the Army of God.

Bernard Von Frumm has been so far checked out from reality for so many years that even some of the folks at Stormfront thought he was around the bend. When the people at Stormfront wonder if your magazine is completely full, you're probably not going to be influenced by the mainstream media, or even conservative talk radio. And the aluminum foil in your hat would probably screw up the reception anyway.

Richard Poplawski? No way to tell. He might have heard Michael Savage, or he might have heard some guy down at the bar, or he might have been hallucinating when the Zoloft prescription ran out.

My point [and I do have some] is that

(a) definitions of terrorism have become so elastic and self-interested that they need to be approach very, very carefully. Again, as Brian Whitaker points out, the original US definition of terrorism excluded crimes against property:

Another essential ingredient (you might think) is that terrorism is calculated to terrorise the public or a particular section of it. The American definition does not mention spreading terror at all, because that would exclude attacks against property. It is, after all, impossible to frighten an inanimate object.

Among last year's attacks, 152 were directed against a pipeline in Colombia which is owned by multinational oil companies. Such attacks are of concern to the United States and so a definition is required which allows them to be counted.

Definitions of terrorism are always political, and have a tendency to become politicized.

(b) not all violence, not even all political violence necessarily rises to the defintion of terrorism. I don't think you can make a legitimate case, based on what was reported of his pre-murder ravings, that Richard Poplawski is an example of domestic terrorism, unless you define terrorism purely by effects rather than including causes or actors in the definition.

(c) real terrorists--the people who are deeply committed to violent extremist agendas--are not really likely to be swayed in either the choice of targets or the timing of their acts by Michael Steele, Rush Limbaugh, or even Barack Obama in Cairo.

Unfortunately, while everybody left and right is busy demagoging this issue, it's difficult if not impossible to hold a reasoned discussion.


Delaware Watch said...

Very interesting & thoughtful post. About this: "But it is interesting that the FBI definition does not require premeditation and the US Code definition does." Isn't that because the FBI definition only defines terrorism and, as such, methods are incapable of premeditation?

Steven H. Newton said...

I don't think so. Think, for example, about the distinction between first and second degree murder, which is premeditation.

What I was trying to say about the FBI definition (and it really only came to me after my bike ride when I had already posted) is that we throw around the terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" almost as synonyms, but one is an action and the other is an actor. The FBI defines the crime, but the US Code also says, effectively, the crime must also be perpetrated by a specific class of actors to count under this definition: subnational group with premeditation.

It's those subtle distinctions I think we are missing in lots of our conversations.

Anonymous said...

Actually, in your hypothetical,the hitman isn't trying to create terror and thereby dissuade potential witnesses in drug cases generally, "just" to eliminate particular witnesses.

There are plenty of instances of "narcoterrorists" including both "political" terrorists who use the drug trade to raise cash, and criminals who use terrorist methods to discourage law enforcement. In some cases, you can't tell which is which.