Redefining Terrorism: Paranoia, Protests and the Party Line

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Redefining Terrorism: Paranoia, Protests and the Party Line

If you’re like me, you don’t consider yourself a terrorist. In theory, it’s pretty easy not to get involved in terroristic activities—avoid ISIS-related Facebook groups, slap some “Support Our Troops” decals on your bumper, and you’re good, right?

In the Trump Era, it might not be that simple. Should recent Republican efforts to rebrand certain activities come to fruition, many Americans could wake up one morning to discover they have become targets in our nation’s ongoing, increasingly ill-defined War on Terror.

In the months and years after 9/11, terrorism ceased to be a method employed by our enemies and became the enemy itself. There were still specific targets—the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, etc.—but America’s attacks on them were just battles in what was branded the War on Terror. Though those original battles are, to a degree, over, Terror itself remains a very real threat. Moreover, the use of the blanket term allows us to fold every country invaded and every person killed in a drone strike in with all the representatives of Terror that must be defeated.

Terror transcends borders, making the old concept of wars between nations almost quaint. Seventy years ago, when a country rained death upon another country’s citizens, it was a safe bet to say those countries were at war. Today, America rains death upon people in a number of different countries, most of which are allies of ours in the War on Terror.

That nomenclature went out of vogue during the Obama years, but the extrajudicial killings of foreign nationals, usually with drones, became routine. Instead of declarations of war, the U.S. government now only needed a warrant. The process of getting one took place so far away from the public eye that few people could say whether it really existed. The war even expanded to include the extrajudicial killing of Americans, something which raised questions at first but which lately hasn’t drawn attention from the public, Congress, or anywhere else.

Torture, sworn off as immoral and bad policy by both candidates in the 2008 presidential election, is set for a renaissance under President Trump, who has been remarkably consistent in his unfounded claims that torture works. The long-sought closure of Guantanamo Bay is now a liberal pipe dream. Under Obama, we became comfortable with the idea that alleged terrorists, be they foreigners or American citizens, have nothing close to the rights of normal people. With an uninterested public and an enthusiastically sadistic president, it goes without saying that alleged terrorists can be tortured and killed in the name of the fight against Terror.

With national borders no longer relevant to this fight and nationality going the same way, there’s really only one thing the government needs to do to strip an American citizen of their rights: label them a terrorist.

The definition of “terrorism” is “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes,” but we all know the dictionary has a clear liberal bias. Before Trump was even inaugurated, some conservatives were already working to broaden that definition. Just a week after Trump’s electoral college victory, Washington State Senator Doug Ericksen proposed legislation to increase the penalties for certain protest-related activities, creating a new felony charge for “economic terrorism.” The bill also proposed punishment for organizations that “sponsor” such acts.

Crimes such as trespassing, blocking streets without a permit, and vandalism—which, naturally, were already illegal—would, under this bill, be considered acts of “economic terrorism” when they occurred in association with protests. Anyone who damaged property during the course of a protest, or anyone considered a “sponsor” of a protest where property damage occurred, would be labeled a terrorist under this law. While the bill did not equate economic terrorists with actual murderous terrorists in a legal sense, it did add an inflammatory label and a felony charge to the prosecution of crimes which fell pretty far outside the definition of “terrorism,” unless you think those guys who smashed up that Starbucks in DC were attempting to coerce someone for political purposes.

Ericksen, who was Trump’s deputy Washington campaign director, will likely never see his bill become law in Washington State, but similar bills have cropped up in Michigan, Minnesota, and other states where Republicans are particularly afraid of anti-Trump backlash. They don’t all use the term “economic terrorism”—a phrase that scarcely makes sense unless you’ve internalized the idea that money-making operations deserve to be treated like people—but they all create much harsher punishments for charges typically leveled against protesters.

Similarly, as The Guardian reported last month, the FBI dispatched officers trained to catch terrorists as part of its investigation of Standing Rock protesters. Saying they believed she had been injured by a protester-made bomb—bystanders say it was a police concussion grenade—the FBI’s joint terrorism task force questioned a young woman and confiscated her clothing as she prepared to undergo surgery. They have reportedly questioned numerous other protesters, all without a warrant.

Meanwhile, reporters who covered Standing Rock and other protests have been arrested simply for being nearby as protests turned violent. Perhaps most shockingly, six reporters covering the Inauguration in DC were arrested and charged with felony rioting despite a complete lack of evidence that they engaged in the fracas they were covering.

Of course the protesters who torched a limousine that day were breaking the law. But do isolated instances of such behavior justify the arrest of non-participants? More to the point, does an act of vandalism routinely committed by fans of the Stanley Cup winner deserve to be labeled terrorism? For many Republicans, the answer appears to be “Yes.”

Lest we mistake this for an altruistic crusade against violence, Republicans in North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Washington have introduced bills that would make it legal for drivers to plow through crowds of peaceful demonstrators if they block a road. Google “protester run over” and you’ll find plenty of videos of drivers doing just that, to jeers and adulation from conservatives who think blocking traffic is a crime warranting potentially fatal injury.

While “economic terrorism” and legalized vehicular manslaughter may not go on the books in the immediate future, there are clear indications of where this all leads. If terrorists can be targeted, tortured, and killed without a trial, and if you can become a terrorist just by standing in front of a car, can we really say the Bill of Rights is being upheld?

If that sounds alarmist, ask yourself why anyone would bother to apply the term “terrorism” to peaceful dissent. The goal is to stifle dissent, and it increasingly appears as if Republicans will be comfortable doing so by any means necessary. Under an administration that places so little value on civil liberties and human dignity, the casual dehumanization of dissenters is not to be taken lightly.

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