Terrorism and the Law


“There is neither an academic nor an accurate legal consensus regarding the definition of terrorism. Various legal systems and government agencies use different definitions. Moreover, governments have been reluctant to formulate an agreed upon, legally binding definition. These difficulties arise from the fact that the term is politically and emotionally charged.”
— The New York Times, Inside Terrorism

sentencing guidelinesIs a man accused of spousal abuse a terrorist, or simply an abuser? He is using violence, or the threat of violence, to coerce another person. 

What about a mother who abuses her kids?

We, collectively, have a preconceived idea of what terrorism is, but as we continue to loosen that definition, where does it end?

Even the Experts, and governments, cannot agree on a single, legal definition for what constitutes terrorism. How does this impact our legal system? What kinds of abuses of civil liberties can it lead to? Once we head down this road, where will it end?

The McCarthy hearings are a perfect example of what can happen when we start to dismantle the constitution for the convenience of the present. How many lives were destroyed because the ‘threat’ of communism was used as a justification for abuses of the original intent? Abuses that are inevitable whenever people get too much power.

The Colorado shooter.  He ‘uttered’ four words and was immediately labeled ‘a white Christian terrorist’, before anyone had any time to investigate anything. The media immediately implied an organized effort. (Terrorism in it’s traditional definition is, “Violence as a means to bring about stated political goals”and is typically carried out by individuals connected to a larger network or organization.) When the facts about the shooter came out, it’s pretty obvious he’s deranged and had no associations, political or otherwise, that would imply a real connection to what we would define as terrorism. If he is in fact mentally ill, should he be stripped of his right to a fair trial? Is that justice?

How does an act of terrorism legally differ from a traditional crime? After all, we have multiple laws on the books dealing with murder, racketeering, etc. What does the label of ‘terrorist’ actually mean?

It’s a good question, one that we haven’t really begun to address in the legal community, and if the events of late don’t spur us to act, we in the criminal defense side of things may find we are being marginalized, while our citizens are gradually stripped of their right to due process.

The Patriot Act is real. It’s not some conspiracy theory. It was sold like it was about bearded men wearing turbans hijacking planes, and we bought it.

The truth is, “Terrorism” is so loosely defined, legally speaking, it invites abuse. And still more troubling, it predicates the slow dismantling of our entire criminal justice system.

With the outpouring of affection for our friends in France, it’s important to remember their legal system is built upon the opposite notion of our own– that we are innocent until proven guilty. Their system is based on guilt before innocence, because they believe the State wouldn’t charge an innocent person with a crime, so they must be guilty, or they wouldn’t face charges. They must prove their innocence. The burden of proof is on them, not on the State.

That is why the Great American Experiment worked. Everyone had the freedom to screw up. Even the State. Our system is not built to impose justice. It’s built to uphold justice.

The court system here is, at it’s foundation, is built upon humanity.

It functions in full awareness of human interactions, human calculations, human beings. No matter how many rules and regulations and statutes we write, at the end of the day, the beauty of our system was it’s implicit recognition that human beings are not infallible, even those who represent the State. Human beings make mistakes, accidentally or willfully, and our system of justice was built upon that.

I say ‘was’, because when we take away those fundamental rights, little by little, in the name of justice, while not actually serving justice, we ourselves become co-conspirators with the psychological escape hatch of, ‘just following orders’.

I believe in our system of justice. I’ve dedicated my entire education and career to it. I am active in causes. I would hate to think that my association with a legitimate cause (In my case, I’m the Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Chapter of NORML) could land me on a terrorist watch list. Freedom of association is a right guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s why you can’t arrest restaurant owners for serving mobsters dinner.

“The Mob” is known for using the threat of violence to intimidate, but they are recognized as organized crime. There are plenty of laws on the books covering that, and they ultimately have the right to a fair trial. The ‘motive’ is ultimately monetary profit, rather than political gain (J.F.K. theorists might disagree), but is it not basically the same definition of terrorism?

In the next installment, I’ll take a closer look at the language of The Patriot Act, and how it could affect our system of due process.

And for any Mobsters reading this, no, I don’t think you’re terrorists. Let’s hope I’m right.

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