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 SessionsBeto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' Rosenstein to appear for House interview next week Emmet Flood steps in as White House counsel following McGahn departure 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 RyanPelosi, Schumer: Trump 'desperate' to put focus on immigration, not health care Trump urges Dems to help craft new immigration laws: ‘Chuck & Nancy, call me!' Sanders, Harris set to criss-cross Iowa MORE (Wis.), Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP plays hardball in race to confirm Trump's court picks Trump officials ratchet up drug pricing fight Dems angered by GOP plan to hold judicial hearings in October MORE (Iowa), Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDemocrats slide in battle for Senate O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Election Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue MORE (Texas), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerElection Countdown: Small-donor donations explode | Russian woman charged with midterm interference | Takeaways from North Dakota Senate debate | O'Rourke gives 'definitive no' to 2020 run | Dems hope Latino voters turn Arizona blue Democrats must end mob rule GOP senators praise Haley as 'powerful' and 'unafraid' MORE (Colo.), Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioO'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot Meghan McCain calls Russian attacks against her father the 'highest compliment' to her family The Memo: Saudi storm darkens for Trump MORE (Fla.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottTrump should stick to his guns and close failed South Carolina nuclear MOX project Treasury releases guidance on 'opportunity zone' program created by Trump tax law Overnight Health Care — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Senators face Wednesday vote on Trump health plans rule | Trump officials plan downtime for ObamaCare website | Lawmakers push for action on reducing maternal deaths 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 McCaskillDemocrats slide in battle for Senate Overnight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma —Senate debates highlight fight over pre-existing conditions | Support grows for Utah Medicaid expansion measure | Arkansas health official defends work requirements McCaskill campaign says ‘intern’ who filmed campaign had access to voter data MORE (Mo.), Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care — Presented by Purdue Pharma — Trump says GOP will support pre-existing condition protections | McConnell defends ObamaCare lawsuit | Dems raise new questions for HHS on child separations Republicans should prepare for Nancy Pelosi to wield the gavel US to open trade talks with Japan, EU, UK 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.