Congress Blog

It is time to make domestic terrorism a federal crime

Heather Heyer. Lieutenant H. Jay Cullen. Trooper Berke Bates.

No discussion of the tragedy in Charlottesville should begin without honoring the families and friends of the three people whose lives were lost in connection with the white supremacist rally. FBI agents mourn the loss of our fellow law enforcement officers, who died trying to protect the public, and Heather Heyer, who was killed standing up to bigotry. They will not be forgotten.

While the investigation is still ongoing, the events in Charlottesville appear to be another grim reminder of the fact that there are individuals and groups who will use violence and threats of violence to advance their agendas. Whether the targets are churchgoers in Charleston, the Family Research Council in Washington, Somali residents in Kansas, or a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin, our country must confront these voices of anger, hatred and violence.

These criminal acts have a name - domestic terrorism. As Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated, the killing of Heather Heyer "does meet the definition of domestic terrorism ... that cannot be accepted in America." Republicans including Speaker Paul Ryan (Wis.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), and Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) have all called the crimes in Charlottesville terrorism. The same is true of Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.).

However, the unfortunate truth is that nobody connected with the events in Charlottesville will be charged with committing acts of domestic terrorism under current federal law.

This is because even though many states and localities have adopted penalties for domestic terrorism - and the U.S. Code defines the phrase "domestic terrorism"- there are currently no penalties attached to that definition and therefore "domestic terrorism" is not a crime in and of itself under federal law.

Current law results in too much uncertainty for law enforcement officials and the public, as it makes federal officials depend on city codes to prosecute domestic terrorists (as was done in the case of the 2012 attack on the Family Research Council), have charges dependent on the type of weapons used (as was done in the case of the "Crusaders" plot in Kansas last October), or pursue only non-terrorism charges (as was done in the case of Dylann Roof). The current legal gap also leads to confusion and frustration when the public expects a criminal to be prosecuted as a domestic terrorist but no such charges are pursued.

Congress should amend the U.S. Code to make domestic terrorism a crime subject to specific penalties that apply irrespective of the weapon or target involved in the crime. Specifically, this legislation should make it a crime for a person to commit, attempt, or conspire to commit an act of violence intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or to influence government policy or conduct.

Treating domestic terrorism as a federal crime would help resolve jurisdictional and legal uncertainties surrounding domestic terrorism by providing clear authorization for the investigation and prosecution of domestic terrorists under federal law. It would also help our country unify around a commonsense fact: Domestic terrorism is not a local or state phenomenon - it is a threat to the people of our country that should be confronted clearly and consistently by the federal government.

Our political system is designed to encourage varied arguments, but it cannot function properly if violence is mixed with politics. When groups or individuals commit violent acts as a part of their agenda, the public deserves to know that their crimes will be investigated and prosecuted under federal law as acts of domestic terrorism and that, if convicted, appropriate sentences will be imposed.

Congress should unite around this common threat to our citizenry and move quickly to attach criminal penalties to the definition of domestic terrorism in the U.S. Code.

O'Connor is president of the FBI Agents Association.

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