Public Policy & Domestic Terrorism

workplace violence prevention expert

Public Policy & Domestic Terrorism

Abstract

Domestic terrorism has plagued the United States for almost as long as it has been an independent nation. However, it was not until attacks that took place over the last few decades that a need to identify and address the threat was established. The agreement that domestic terrorism is a problem remains a far cry from agreeing on a viable solution. Controversy over how to define it, punish it, and prevent it without impeding constitutional rights continues to provide roadblocks to the creation of effective policy. As new threats immerge and methods of attacks continue to evolve, established policy continues to fall further and further behind. Without proper identification of the threat, it is impossible to create an effective policy. This paper seeks to understand the overall threat, examine the efficacy of existing policy, and provide recommendations to improve current policies or the creation of new ones.

Keywords: domestic terrorism, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, lone wolf, public policy

Introduction & Background

Domestic terrorism has always been a concern in the United States; from the Haymarket Square bombing of 1886 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 (McCann, 2006), to the more recent acts of lone-wolf attacks and violent protest groups. Over the centuries the method of these attacks has varied to include bombings, hijackings, bioterrorism, mass shootings, and cyber attacks. Some methods are a direct result of advancement in technology, while others appear to be a preference or matter of convenience (McCann, 2006).

Although the threat has been ongoing, it was not until the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11) that the United States determined there was a need to officially define the term. That attack led to the creation of the Homeland Security Act, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U. S. Patriot Act. The goal was to “prevent terrorist attacks within the United States, reduce the vulnerability of the United States to terrorism, and minimize damage and assist in recovery for terrorist attacks that occur in the United States” (Wiedemann, 2010, para. 1).

Since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a fundamental shift in the types of violence identified as domestic terrorism. Some groups have generated significant media attention over the past few years with violent protests, destruction of property, and inciting riots (Irby, 2017; see also Russell, 2017). What has come to be known as ‘lone wolf’ attacks, have also surfaced as a new threat. However, whether or not these particular types of violence warrant the title of domestic terrorism and what should be done to counter these attacks may depend on who is reporting the story (Goldberg, 2017; see also Irby, 2017).  The appropriate policy to counter such attacks is equally as varied (Sullivan, 2017; see also Sandler, 2010).

Justification

According to Clemons and McBeth (2017), identification of a problem is the first step in public policy creation or determining if the current policy is effective. In identifying domestic terrorism, there are several considerations that need to be addressed. This research paper will seek to answer several questions regarding this topic, including but not limited to: What constitutes an act of domestic terrorism? If claims are made of ties to international terrorist organizations, does the perpetrator maintain status as a domestic terrorist, or does that status change to something more substantial? Is the criminal justice system effective against domestic terrorism? In order to create effective policy, it is vital to understand the nature of the threat, the ideologies behind the cause, and the impact it has on the public.

Delimitation & Scope

The primary focus of this paper was domestic terrorism, and the current policies in place to detour said acts. Existing threats were researched using the confines of the definition as provided by several federal government agencies. Unlike international terrorist organizations, no official list of designated domestic terrorist groups exists (Bjelopera, 2017). For this reason, those groups chosen for the purpose of this project were done so by the media attention and controversy they have generated through acts of violence.

According to Berkebile (2012), although domestic terrorism represented the most immediate threat, it remained the category that was the least studied.  Empirical testing was severely limited or absent, and literature has failed as of yet to identify an agreed-upon cause. Case studies were utilized to help provide insight where literature and studies lagged. Through careful examination of threats, existing policy, and case studies; it was believed that the measure of effectiveness in the deterrence could be concluded and further recommendations made regarding public policy.

THREATS

Definition

There are currently two government agencies with official definitions of the term domestic terrorism. Though it is important to note that the only difference in the definitions of domestic terrorism and terrorism is where the act took place. The Department of Homeland Security utilized the definition as determined under the Patriot Act, by which the United States (2001) has stated:

The term ‘domestic terrorism’ means activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that is 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 (pp. 106).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) (n.d.) has defined it as acts “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature” (para. 2).  Although neither agency had identified a designated list of domestic terrorist groups, they have recognized individual threats that fall within the confines of the definition. These identified threats have included groups and individuals who commit crimes in support of ideologies such as animal and environmental rights, white supremacy, black separatism, anarchism, beliefs about abortion, as well as anti-government (Bjelopera, 2017).

Possible Causes

Research and studies which have addressed possible causes of domestic terrorism are limited and vary significantly. The research conducted for this paper found that although the wording may differ somewhat, there were a few root causes that appeared to be repeated throughout. Among those were social inequality, lack of education, mental illness, groupthink, and superiority complex.

A study conducted by Berkebile (2012) found that domestic terrorism in the United States “is plausibly explained through the strategic, frustration, or access schools” (pp. 43). The exploitation of the legal system and unrestricted travel between states was provided as a strategic explanation. The frustration explanation was demonstrated by those who take issue with the political system and feelings of impotence when it comes to the voting system as a means to effect change. As a result, some extremist groups have turned to violence in order to have their voices heard. The access explanation has been seen through proven social change. Women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement both helped to confirm influence was possible with the right motivation. Some groups have come to believe that the more violent the act, the more motivation it creates.

Maass and Tsintsadze-Maass (2014) believed many domestic terrorist groups had utilized their own rationale in choosing terrorism as the preferred method to progress their objectives. Although, they also stated this rational process might have used an irrational thought progression. When this occurred, it is believed that groupthink was the culprit.  Corner and Gill (2015) contended groupthink alone could not cause terrorism, but groups influenced by someone with a mental illness could incite it. They believed cultural and faith-based differences often drove ideologies. However, it is difficult to deny the underlying mental health issues of many individuals who seek out or start radical organizations or act on behalf of another’s cause.

The lack of agreement as to causation and limited research, have created the need to utilize case studies as a tool in the arsenal against domestic terrorism (Berkebile, 2012). Recently, headlines have been dominated by two primary threats in the United States; violent protesters and lone-wolf attacks (Irby, 2017; see also Russell, 2017). These threats have been specifically addressed to help narrow down causes and identify possible policy solutions.

Violent Protesters

There has been a great deal of attention generated between what constitutes an act of domestic terrorism versus the constitutionally protected right to protest (Bjelopera, 2017). As groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM) have come center stage in rising against perceived injustices, the public has been largely divided on the matter. Due to the violence which inevitably accompanied their events, even those who supported free speech found difficulty backing these movements. Petitions were started by a few organizations which sought to have them designated by the government as domestic terrorist groups (Russell, 2017; see also Tsai, 2017).

Since 2014, the media has reported on large-scale protest events which turned violent in no less than 20 major U.S. cities; some of which lasted over a period of several days. The types of violence ranged from looting and rioting to vicious assaults on persons, property, and police officers. In some cases, peaceful protests turned violent as vehicles attempted to bypass human roadblocks. Antifa and BLM have been responsible for the majority of these violent protests (Blander, 2017). These two organizations share commonalities in some of their violent methods, but make no mistake, Antifa and BLM are very different organizations.

Antifa

According to Russell (2017), Antifa obtained their name from a shortened version of anti-fascist. The group markedly opposed fascism or any “authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government and social organization” (pp. 1). Tsai (2017) explained members of Antifa had justified their militant actions in cases where peaceful dialogue failed to create change. They have declared anyone who opposed their methods or ideologies to be fascists and thus part of the problem.

Some opposition groups had started petitions requesting the Departement of Homeland Security (DHS) to declare Antifa, a domestic terrorist organization. They stated the use of “violence to create fear in pursuit of political aims is the textbook definition of terrorism” (Russell, 2017, pp. 1). These groups have addressed Antifa’s claims that they seek a peaceful resolution, as false and have warned that violence is their only way (Russell, 2017). Although many media outlets have claimed DHS labeled Antifa a domestic terror organization, the lack of an official list makes the allegation difficult to prove. Most Antifa members have expressed little concern about being labeled as domestic terrorists. This may be due to the fact that members wear masks, making an arrest by law enforcement the only way to identify them (Tsai, 2017).

Perhaps the best description of Antifa’s antics was provided by McCann (2006) in what he referred to as ‘lost-cause terrorism.’ This type of domestic terrorism is described as “acts of political violence where members of a group have lost a battle and act out in a final display of defiance or rebellion” (pp. 9). According to this definition, it would suggest that Antifa may eventually (if not begrudgingly) accept what cannot be changed and cease their violent ways. However, as late as September 2017, both the FBI and DHS warned of additional attacks by the group (Meyer, 2017).

Black Lives Matter

The BLM movement began in August 2014 after Ferguson, Missouri police shot and killed Michael Brown. The movement gained momentum following several other high profile shootings of black men by what BLM members deemed ‘racist police officers.’  BLM asserted the unjust treatment of black men by law enforcement and the willingness of officers to shoot those who are unarmed, warranted national attention. The organization claimed to encourage prevalent and intellectual discussions on the topic of racial injustices while referring to anyone who opposed them as ‘racist.’ Although seen by its supporters as bringing attention to a discriminatory criminal justice system, the group’s opposition has accused the organization of race-baiting, discrimination against police officers, and inciting violence (Garcia & Sharif, 2015).

Mac Donald (2016), warned BLM accusations that the police were the most significant threat to young black men did not come close to actual statistics. She further indicated that this false narrative was a rouse for the underlying anti-cop ideology which fueled the hatred of the group’s members. As members actively called for and promoted the deaths of police officers, ambush-style attacks and officer deaths increased. While the movement hid behind the constitutional right of freedom of speech, they appeared to be inciting, as well as partaking in violence against police officers.

As with Antifa, there was no evidence that government agencies had officially designated BLM a domestic terrorist group. However, Irby (2017) stated that the FBI counterterrorism division had identified “black identity extremists” (pp. 1) as a domestic terrorist threat. This was believed by some to be overreaching and a basis for investigations that were unjust and abusive. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other activist groups believe the definition is too broad and unreasonably justifies surveillance against any black individual who is active in politics (Irby, 2017, see also dos Santos, 2017).

Lone Wolf

According to Wray (2017), the influence of international terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda through the use of propaganda and training materials, has led to the domestic threat of ‘lone wolf’ attacks. According to FBI Director Wray, these attacks are perpetrated by individuals with no real ties to an international terrorist organization but who claim allegiance to their cause. In a statement he made before the Committee on Homeland Security and the U.S. House of Representatives, Wray (2017) stated this particular threat to be one of the greatest currently faced by Americans. However, not everyone has agreed with this assessment.

Barnes (2012), stated that although lone wolf attacks are impossible to predict and difficult to counter, they were “ultimately insignificant” (pp. 1655). He further explained that lone wolf attacks were unpredictable because they were planned and carried out by one person and thus there were no communications that could be intercepted. However, this is also what has rendered the effect of their attacks insignificant. Barnes (2012) contended that no single lone wolf attack could cause significant damage.

There are two possibilities for these differences in how this threat was viewed: (1) the increased number of lone-wolf attacks between 2012 and 2017 or; (2) what occurrences are being called lone wolf versus other criminal acts. A review of four very high-profile incidents of lone-wolf attacks which took place between 2012 and 2017, revealed the following:

  • December 14, 2012, in Newtown, CT at Sandy Hook Elementary School a lone gunman (believed to be mentally ill) killed 20 first-grade children and seven faculty members before taking his own life (Connecticut State Police, 2012).
  • December 2, 2015, in San Bernardino, CA at the Regional Center, a married couple (claiming allegiance to ISIS) killed 14 people and wounded 24 before being killed by police (Braziel, Hoops, Straub, & Watson, 2015).
  • June 12, 2016, in Orlando, FL at the Pulse nightclub, a lone gunman (claiming allegiance to ISIS) killed 49 people and wounded 53 before being killed by police (Straub et al., 2016).
  • October 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, NV at the Harvest music festival, a lone gunman fired on a crowd of concert attendees, killing 58 and wounding more than 500 before the shooter took his own life. This investigation is still ongoing, and a motive has not been established. (Wamsley, 2017).

The ideologies which drive an attack determine whether it can be considered domestic or international terrorism, even if it takes place on American soil. Ideologies are usually specified by the attacker either during (shouting “Allah Akbar”) or after when the investigation has revealed manifestos, social media accounts, or through the admission of the attacker during interrogation (Sadler, 2010). Some claims made by perpetrators as to ties to international terrorist groups have been brought into question.

  • Investigation in a beheading perpetrated by Alton Nolen in Moore, OK in 2014 revealed his social media account had video links to ISIS beheadings. He was a recent convert to Islam and had been actively trying to convert his co-workers. The FBI ruled the incident ‘workplace violence,’ and Nolen’s mental health became the subject of his trail. He was sentenced to death in 2017 for first-degree murder.
  • Despite Omar Mateen’s own statements of support to ISIS, media outlets reported on his mental state following his attack on the Orlando nightclub and subsequent death (Goldman, Warrick, & Bearak, 2016; Hosseini, Girgis, & Khan-Pastula, 2016; see also Rothwell & Alexander, 2016).

According to a study conducted by Corner and Gill (2015), mental illness and social isolation play a more significant role in lone wolf attacks than those attacks perpetrated by international terrorist groups. This would seem to suggest that the individual members of a terrorist organization who created and distributed propaganda on how to plan and carry out lone-wolf attacks are somehow less likely to suffer from mental illness than those individuals who take the propaganda and see it through to fruition. This difference may be explained by culture and values.

The data set utilized for the Corner and Gill (2015) study reviewed 119 lone wolf attacks from the U.S. and Europe between 1990 and 2013. What it does not detail are which attackers were natural-born citizens and who were immigrants or refugees. Totten (2011) explained the importance of this in his discussion of ‘solutionism,’ or the propensity of Americans to apply their culture and values to resolve issues. Regarding the issue of domestic terrorism and the lone wolf attacker, motivation and what is seen as mental illness may actually be explained by cultural differences. This begs the question when are the actions of a crazed gunman not a product of mental illness? Is it when he is driven by culture or a set of values that differ significantly from that seen in the U.S.?

DISCUSSION

According to Clemons and McBeth (2017), the first step in the creation of public policy is to identify an issue. However, as demonstrated in the previous paragraphs, this process is not necessarily a simple one. Perception of the issue, the root cause versus a symptom of said cause, and bias or personal agenda may affect what is seen as the issue. Berkebile (2012) agreed as he contributed perception of the problem and the lack of an agreed-upon cause as the primary culprits behind failed public policy.

Chermak and Gruenewald (2006) suggested the media plays a role in how domestic terrorism is seen by the public, “especially because most people only experience terrorism through mass-media accounts” (pp. 431). The media decides which events warrant the most coverage, which received minimal coverage, and those that are ignored altogether. During a period of 25 years, Chermask and Gruenewald (2006) suggested the general American public might be familiar with three or four large-scale events; the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, and the 9/11 attacks. However, during this same 25 year period, the FBI reported more than 450 domestic terror attacks. This willingness by the media to pick and choose which events to minimize and which to sensationalize may directly impact the public’s perception of the issue, their demands for policy, or their view of the efficacy of existing policy.

Current Policy

According to Nathan (2018), the U.S. Patriot Act contained the most significant federal laws on terrorism since the attacks of 9/11. Individuals who commit an act of terrorism and those who make terrorist threats may face both state and federal criminal charges. The penalties range from less than ten years imprisonment (for threats) to mandatory death sentence on federal charges which may trump state statutes prohibiting the death penalty. However, there are no separate statues for domestic terrorism. An individual may only be charged with terrorism (Axelrod, 2017) and there is a consensus of unwillingness for prosecutors to utilize this charge in cases perpetrated by American citizens (Myre, 2017).

Sullivan (2017) explained that the lack of a separate statute for domestic terrorism prevents these attacks from being prosecuted as such. The attack which took place in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 when an alleged white supremacist used his vehicle to run over protesters (19 injured, one killed), is one such case. Although the attorney general called the attack an act of domestic terrorism, the lack of statute addressing it forced explicit prosecution under alternative criminal laws. This does not, however, mean the penalties would be any less severe.

Although some media stories portray outrage a the lack of a domestic terrorism statute (Myre, 2017; see also Axelrod, 2017), others have stated the creation of such statues would represent an overreach of the federal government (Greenberg, 2017). According to Greenberg (2017), the use of fear should not be exploited with the goal of weakening existing laws that are in place to protect citizens from abuses of power by the government.  This view has been reflected by Best, Krueger, and Pearson-Merkowitz (2011) in a study conducted regarding why some domestic terrorism policies have received support while others have been met with resistance. The study demonstrated anxiety regarding governmental overreach was the primary factor. However, it was specified that the perception of the policy caused anxiety, not necessarily the policy itself.

Recommendations

The media has a responsibility to report unbiased accounts of all news. However, questions have been raised as to how often journalists actually adhere to this guideline. Their influence over the American public on the perception of social issues such as domestic terrorism cannot be denied. This would suggest that if the media is so inclined to sensationalize and skew what they feed the public, the public should resist this ‘emotional high jacking’ in the presentation of such stories and seek more reputable sources of data in order to formulate educated opinions on the issue at hand. The media are not the only guilty parties.

According to Clemons and McBeth (2017), politicians have also sensationalized an issue in pursuit of a personal agenda. Federal and state agencies should seek to address the issue of domestic terrorism in an unbiased manner and in the best interest of the public. There are many studies that focus on domestic terrorism and its causes, and these should be utilized over personal agendas and overly dramatic news accounts.

In seeking to deter domestic terrorism, the ideologies behind the cause must receive as much attention as the acts themselves. The American Criminal Justice System aims to punish criminals who are driven by personal monetary gain and fall short for those who are motivated by other causes (Avery, 2001). The question then becomes how to punish an individual when their only goal is martyrdom. The answer, although not found in the research for this paper, could be the solution and fundamental to the creation of an effective policy on domestic terrorism.

Conclusion

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle (Sun Tzu as cited by Giles, 2013).

Although the U.S. may win some individual battles against domestic terrorism, without an adequate policy, the war may be lost. Effective policy cannot be established against a threat that cannot accurately be defined. A threat cannot be defined without a comprehensive understanding of the driving ideologies. Ideologies cannot be understood if the application of the wrong baselines is utilized (solutionism). Correct baselines cannot be used if there is a lack of consensus on who is to be held accountable (media, society, government, mental illness, individual perpetrators, etc.).  Even if agencies, states, and the federal government worked together to do all of this, unless the issue is perceived by the public (via media representation) as being adequately addressed, it would remain a point of contingency. It could be said that it is not the issue of domestic terrorism that is the problem but rather the perception of the issue.  It may then be easier to create policy addressing perception than it would create a policy that effectively addressed domestic terrorism.

 

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