There is no such thing as a domestic terrorist in this country. Why? Because no matter how many people you kill, maim, or even blow up, you cannot be prosecuted for domestic terrorism in the U.S.
While the Patriot Act of 2001 did expand the definition of terrorism to include “domestic terrorism," it did not make it a crime to be a domestic terrorist. The act expanded the ways in which the government can attempt to obtain information on potential terrorists with domestic ties, but it stopped short of criminalizing actual acts of terror on our soil.
The plain fact is that U.S. citizens have committed acts of domestic terror against citizens on our soil. Excepting 9/11, the deadliest terrorist attacks on American soil have been by Americans, the Oklahoma City bombing being the deadliest. But even Timothy McVeigh wasn’t seen as a domestic terrorist in the eyes of the law.
And yet we know the threat from domestic terrorism is growing. In the years since 9/11, the FBI has continually warned of the escalating threat from, in their words, “increasingly radicalized individuals” who “commit violent criminal acts in furtherance of ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as racial bias and anti-government sentiment.” The FBI says that these homegrown individuals “pose a present and persistent threat of violence and economic harm to the United States.”
We are a nation replete with reminders of the “success” of these radicalized individuals. The 2017 attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a white supremacist killed one and injured 19 after driving his car through a crowd of people protesting a neo-Nazi rally, was labeled as “domestic terrorism” by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Those acts of violence were charged as assault and murder. So why bother tacking on a domestic terrorism charge?
First, because the FBI and other federal law enforcement agents who track information on potentially radicalized individuals fail to share that information with state, local, and tribal jurisdictions before these individuals commit crimes of terror. The federal agencies are not hiding the ball because they want to be deceitful but because there is no law against domestic terrorism.
Second, every prosecutor worth her salt wants the full panoply of charges available to her when attempting to extract information from a defendant. In those key post-arrest hours, a prosecutor wants to be able to confront a defendant with the real threat that he or she will be facing multiple counts of domestic terrorism. In some cases, that threat may make a defendant give up information about a co-conspirator or other planned attacks in the hope of having those charges taken off the table.
Both the House and Senate have bills before them that would mandate that the FBI and other federal agencies share information with state and local officials about potential domestic terrorism threats. But those bills are not law, which means that our local and state law enforcement officers do not have nationwide access to the FBI database on these so-called radicalized individuals.
We’ve left our state and local law enforcement stranded without the potentially vital information they may need to be ahead of the curve on catching—I'll call it like it is—a domestic terrorist before he strikes!
It’s not like domestic terrorism is new to this country. Known as the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski may have been one of the first. Holed up in a cabin in Montana, Kaczynski masterminded a campaign of random terror, killing and maiming people through bombs sent in untraceable packages. Hundreds of investigators toiled for years in what felt like a never-ending, and fruitless search for the suspect. It was only after two decades, when his “Manifesto” was published, that Kaczynski was finally captured.
The idea that we wouldn’t call Kaczynski a domestic terrorist today is unfathomable to me. Kaczynski was a reclusive wunderkind with a twisted world view who methodically killed people using interstate means. His goal was to disrupt the government—killing people was just the necessary collateral.
Yet even the Unabomber wasn’t charged with domestic terrorism. No such charge existed in 1996. And it doesn’t exist today.
Failure of communication between local and federal law enforcement is widely accepted as one of the main reasons the Unabomber was able to elude capture for nearly two decades.
In 2020, we still have no law against domestic terrorism law, and no mandatory communication between federal and local law enforcement about potential domestic terrorists. After brutal attacks aimed at Jewish people in New York, Governor Mario Cuomo is poised to be the first governor to press for a domestic terrorism law, which would prosecute as domestic terrorists those who intend to create mass harm, mass violence, and generate fear based on race, color, or creed. New York should act quickly to pass such legislation, and we should encourage other states to quickly follow suit.
“Radicalized individuals” have gotten a lot more sophisticated since the days of the Unabomber. We need to start catching up by sharing information between all law enforcement agencies, and by passing state and federal laws to call these people what they are: domestic terrorists.
Lis Wiehl is the author of the Hunting series. The second book in the series, Hunting the Unabomber, will be published in April by Thomas Nelson Books, a division of HarperCollins.