Is the US blind to domestic terrorism?

Surprisingly, if there is one issue many people differ on it is what constitutes terrorism.  There are so many different definitions and in some places, like my country (Canada), it is not even spelled out in law (the Canadian Criminal Code outlines what a terrorist act is, not terrorism per se).  You would think that a phenomenon that has gripped and terrified the world for so long would have led to some consensus among everyone as to what it is.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of terrorism that we can – all? – agree on.  It has to be an act of serious violence or threat thereof.  It has to target indiscriminately target people who are not in a position to defend themselves.   And it has to be motivated by some kind of ideology, be it political, religious or otherwise.  Even here, however, we sometimes get hung up on what President Reagan referred to as the “freedom fighter-terrorist” distinction.

These differences notwithstanding, it is hard to fathom how some people who carry out certain acts are not seen as terrorists.  Case in point: the recent acquittal of seven defendants in the seizure of the Malheur wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon last Thursday.  For those of you had forgotten about this, back in January of this year a bunch of heavily armed self-styled “patriots” took control of a poorly defended bird sanctuary and demanded that the US government release public lands. During the standoff with police, who were called in to deal with a breach of the law, a spokesman for the group, Robert Finicum, was killed.   Supporters of the militants are celebrating the decision as a victory for liberty.

I am amazed that this incident was not seen as a terrorist act.  Even if we abide by the most stringent definition possible, their act cannot be seen as anything but terrorism.  A band of heavily armed people forcibly take a piece of and that did not belong to them and threatened to use violence against anyone who tried to stop them.  Their cause was clearly ideological in nature, whether you see it as anti-government, conspiracy-driven or even religious.  The occupiers hoped to draw others to their mission and some did travel to the remote location to help defend it.

The Malheur incident is but one of many that involve armed to the teeth US militants who see the government as the enemy and who want to create new facts on the ground through the threat of violence.  Those acquitted share much with Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 including 19 children, even if their act did not result in mass carnage.  According to reputable US organisations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of groups that hew to these anti-state ideologies has grown astronomically in the US, especially after the election of President Obama.

And it may get worse.  Republican Presidential wannabe Donald Trump has been shrieking about the terrorist threat and, more ominously, about how the election is rigged against him.  His followers, those of the “hang the bitch (Hillary Clinton)” crowd, could very well resort to violence should their candidate lose.

The US seems wilfully blind to this possibility.  No, not the authorities like the FBI, but average Americans.  They want to package terrorism into a neat bundle, one that is foreign and Muslim.  After all, it was not that long ago that a DHS report about the risk of right wing terrorism from some returning US soldiers serving overseas in places like Afghanistan and Iraq led to howls of protest and charges of unpatriotic, so much so that the report was rescinded.

Terrorism is terrorism and the Malheur bunch were terrorists.  Their “victory” could inspire others to act in copycat fashion.  It does not help matters if most Americans think terrorism only comes in brown packages.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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