It is time to make domestic terrorism a federal crime
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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.

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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 SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsLawmaker wants Chinese news outlet to register as foreign agent Trump-aligned group launches ad campaign hitting Doug Jones on impeachment ICE subpoenas Denver law enforcement: report MORE stated, the killing of Heather Heyer “does meet the definition of domestic terrorism … that cannot be accepted in America.”  Republicans including Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party MORE (Wis.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGraham vows Biden, Ukraine probe after impeachment trial Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle Trump to sign USMCA next Wednesday MORE (Iowa), Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzJordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week The Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power GOP-Biden feud looms over impeachment trial MORE (Texas), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Senate Republicans confident they'll win fight on witnesses Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum MORE (Colo.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioCommerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter MORE (Fla.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDemocrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense What to watch for on day 4 of the Senate impeachment trial GOP cries boredom in attack on impeachment case MORE (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 McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillHow Citizens United altered America's political landscape #MidnightMoscowMitch trends amid criticism of McConnell's proposed impeachment trial rules The most expensive congressional races of the last decade MORE (Mo.), Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — Wyden asks NSA to investigate White House cybersecurity | Commerce withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon objects | Warren calls on Brazil to drop Greenwald charges Wyden vows push to force release of Khashoggi assessment Wyden calls on NSA to examine White House cybersecurity following Bezos hack MORE (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.