They were armed. They were occupying federally-owned land and refusing to leave, they said, until their demands were met. They cast the federal government as the enemy. At least one said he would prefer to die than to go to jail, and when he was indeed killed, supporters lauded him as a martyr to the cause.
But are the occupiers at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon domestic terrorists?
The question might be academic or technical if the debate were limited to law enforcement. But “domestic terrorist” has become a political and media term, which frustrated law-enforcement professionals say is muddling the issue. Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, say it’s being doled out in a racially-discriminatory manner that merely exacerbates the very hate both they and law enforcement are hoping to prevent. And for the press, “terror” adds a whole new element to a story that otherwise would have been just another mass shooting in America.
“There’s clearly a significant difference between domestic terrorism and international terrorism – or what we are now referring to as Islamic terrorism – and hate crimes and other criminal violent acts that get characterized as terrorism. And I think that’s terrible,” says Dennis Lormel, a former counterterrorism official at the FBI who is now president of compliance consulting firm DML Associates. “If we want to understand the threats we face, we have to identify what the problem is. They each mean something completely different. At the end of the day, you have terrorist-like acts, but the actors are different. Their motivation is different,” Lormel says.
“In the aftermath of 9/11, because the entire consciousness and identity of this nation was shaken by such inconceivable violence, terrorism for the better part of a decade or more has been defined by Islamic underpinnings,” says Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. “The reality is, terrorism is not that. It has existed in many forms, from left to right. To say it’s not terrorism simply because of race and the religion of the perpetrators is racist and biased.”
So the San Bernardino shooters were deemed domestic terrorists, which makes sense, both sides agree (though Lormel points out that it made sense to wait until getting the full picture before throwing around the loaded phrase, since it could well have been an act of office violence). But what about Dylann Roof, who reportedly targeted African-American worshippers inside their own Charleston, S.C. church, killing nine? And what of Robert Dear, who reportedly said “no more baby parts” after he opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing three – a case abortion rights supporters say should be called a terrorist act?
“The term ‘terrorism’ is used both rhetorically and legally,” says Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “The problem is that there’s a racial and ideological dimension to what gets labeled terrorism and what doesn’t. It gets subjected to political and rhetorical manipulation.”
One person’s act of lone rage is another’s political, religious or racial agenda, says Dan Gerstein, a former undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and now an analyst at the Rand Corporation. “We don’t really have a good understanding of what terrorism is,” Gerstein says, noting that Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, killed 32 people, “but we’re not really calling him a terrorist – we’re calling him something else. But the Fort Hood shooter – he killed 13 people, yet we called him a domestic terrorist,” he says, referring to Nidal Hasan, the Muslim U.S. Army major convicted of the crime. “We do have a problem with how we handle this.”
Race and religion have wrongly become factors in the definition of terrorism in the public eye, says Daryl Johnson, a former DHS terrorism analyst whose 2009 report about right-wing domestic terror threats was rescinded by the agency after a backlash from conservatives.
“What we see presented in the media is often focused on the dark-skinned foreigner with a funny-sounding name who dresses weird,” Johnson says. “People need to understand that it doesn’t matter what your religion or your background is. There’s terrorism in all forms. The FBI doesn’t come out [and call it terrorism] when we have Charleston or Planned Parenthood. They’re quiet when it comes to the white male shooter.”
Johnson and his colleagues enraged conservatives when they penned a report warning of the dangers of right-wing extremism and terrorist acts that might come of it. The root of it, Johnson explains, was that law enforcement was concerned that a viable, African-American candidate for president, combined with the poor economy and traumatized veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, could lead to racial or anti-government movements that could become domestic terror threats. But when the paper was leaked, critics jumped on it as a political shot at conservatives and veterans, and DHS backed off. “They took things out of context, saying we were basically dishonoring military vets,” Johnson recalls. But the paper was an important tool to describe the evolving domestic threat from the leftist groups of the 60s and 70s to the right-wing groups which developed in the 90s, he says.
The media and the political community, experts say, tend to take a different attitude towards domestic terrorism than the FBI, which is focused on investigating and prosecuting a case. The Patriot Act definition of domestic terrorism is subject to broad interpretation, calling it a case where someone threatens or intimidates others for a political end, putting people’s lives at risk.
The FBI’s list of the eight “most wanted” domestic terrorists, in fact, includes fugitives associated with the Earth Liberation Front, an extremist environmental group born in the 90s, and the Black Panthers, a militant political organization founded in the 60s. All have been charged with serious crimes, such as bombing government facilities, hijacking and bank robbery. And while their names may not be at all familiar to most Americans (and their causes sounding like something from a history book), they remain longtime fugitives from justice, earning them a place on the list.
More recent acts of intimidation and violence, however, have indeed reflected the concerns in the rescinded DHS analysis, Johnson and Lenz note, with causes like taking control of public lands, abortion and race being factors. But Lormel says that doesn’t necessarily make them domestic terror events. Charleston, he says, is more appropriately called a hate crime.
But while the media and politicians may be eager to use the T-word, law enforcement must be more cautious, Lormel says. The occupiers in Oregon likely meet the definition for domestic terrorists, he says, but there was little value in giving the group that designation while there was still a chance for a peaceful end to the siege. “If you have the opportunity to negotiate with these folks, why inflame the situation?” he asks.
Domestic terrorism “makes for better [news] stories and more sensationalism. But in reality, you need to give law enforcement the time to thoroughly look at the situation and come up with the motivation,” he adds. “And in most instances, that’s going to take some time.”
For the time being, domestic terrorism appears to be in the eye of the beholder.