Terror Enhancement Penalties
ABC has sent me an email promoting a story entitled, “Should a Group of Radical Environmentalists Be Considered Terrorists?”
The FBI has called them “the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat,” and their members include four of the Bureau’s 11 Most Wanted homegrown terrorists. Yet in more than 1,100 acts of arson and vandalism, the members of the Earth Liberation Front have never killed a single person. When sentencing begins today, however, they could receive terrorist sentences.
The government saw it 16 months ago when federal agents arrested 10 members of the loose-knit activist group and an affiliate organization, the Animal Liberation Front, in an action called Operation Backfire. At the time of their arrest, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called the cell’s $40 million dollar arson campaign — which targeted, throughout five Western states, a horse slaughterhouse, SUV dealerships, a scientific research center, logging companies and a ski resort — “a pattern of domestic terrorism activities.”
Lawyers and activists defending the saboteurs insist, however, that the terrorist label is a scare tactic. Acts of arson and property damage, they claim, have never been the stuff of terrorism indictments, and the label is intended by the government to stir public outrage, increase the length prison terms and augment the government’s rolls of imprisoned terrorists.
Today in Eugene, Ore., a federal judge will sentence Stanislas Meyerhoff, 29, the first of the 10-member cell that called itself “the family.” The other nine defendants will each be sentenced over the next several weeks. If government prosecutors can convince Judge Ann Aiken that Meyerhoff and the others — all of whom have pleaded guilty to conspiracy and arson charges — are terrorists, then they will be sentenced following federal “terrorism enhancement” guidelines, which could multiply their sentences sevenfold and land them in supermax prisons.
It seems to me we have two distinct questions: 1) Are ALF and similar groups “terrorists”? 2) Should those we label “terrorists” be treated differently for the exact same actions as those we do not label “terrorists”?
The first seems rather easy, four pages* of handwringing by ABC notwithstanding. Of course they’re terrorists. Is it a terrorist act when the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross in a black family’s yard in the middle of the night? The use of criminal violence to incite fear and affect political change is, by most any definition, “terrorism.”
The second question also seems rather easy, at least as framed. Arson is arson. Murder is murder. Harassment is harassment. Battery is battery.
Yet, we have a long tradition of creating separate categories of crime treating those who commit illegal acts for motivations that we have deemed politically repugnant. Thus those who commit vandalism, arson, battery, or murder motivated by racial animus are charged with “hate crimes” and given much harsher penalties. Those who assemble to intimidate abortion clinic workers are charged under RICO whereas those who assemble to intimidate potential replacement workers and other would-be picket line crossers are generally let be.
Giving government officials the power to designate certain perpetrators as “special” and thus more deserving of harsher treatment for the same offense obviously gives them the power to abuse that discretion. Special tools given to law enforcement to go after organized crime, drug lords, and terrorists are going to be used to go after particularly slick criminals who would not have been envisioned when those tools were created. Further, the ability to charge someone with a “super crime” can be used as a lever to coerce people into giving up their right to due process, settling instead for a plea bargain to the crime for which they probably should have been charged to begin with.
It’s far from clear that’s happening here. ALF is arguably as dangerous as the “militia” and white supremacist groups for whom this law was created. Still, that it could happen is problematic. And I’m not at all sure that people who burn down buildings because they love animals are any more deserving of harsh treatment than those who do it because they like seeing things burn down or because they want the insurance money.
*I share Megan McArdle‘s pet peeve about web editions that split articles into multiple pages as if they were somehow limited as they are in print.