The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

“Terrorism” is a dangerous label

3 min read

A pro-Trump mob broke into the Capitol on January 6. | Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post


Staff Writer

On Jan. 6, a group of Trump supporters found their way into the Capitol Building while protesting the certification of the 2020 Presidential Election. Based on the subsequent arrests, the group appears to be a mixed bag of right-wing politics. Bizarre characters like the Q Shaman and podium thief found themselves alongside militia members who sought to harm members of Congress. While many of them enjoyed friendly interactions with the police, there were deaths of both protesters and a police officer.

Once the issue was resolved, lengthy discussions took place on social media about what to call the participants that made it into the Capitol. Seditionists, insurrectionists and terrorists were all thrown around as the label for these individuals. Leaving aside the legal implications of these terms, I don’t find any of them to be descriptive of the events. Seditionists and insurrectionists give the group too much credit; they did not form a provisional government after congressional members were evacuated, nor did they have any clear plans to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

The label I find most insidious is the label of terrorist. The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” While this is a label that could accurately describe some members of the Jan. 6 incident, I still take issue with its use. Terrorism is a label wholly political and unhelpful, that serves a very specific purpose for politicians. To elaborate, I will bring up two terrorist attacks that are helpful in explaining my caution in applying these terms, even to people I find to be dangerous and evil. 

On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh set off a bomb that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. Timothy McVeigh was a former soldier who had become radicalized by the militia movement. Following his arrest, President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (ADEPA) with bipartisan consesus. The bill had two major provisions: making the process of deporting terrorists easier and making the appeals process for death row more difficult. Neither of these would have prevented the attacks or made the arrest of McVeigh easier. “Anti-terrorism” seems to be more about strengthening the state’s ability to deport or execute its residents than it is about preventing further attacks.

Again on 9/11, we saw similar pushes for legislation unrelated to the atrocities committed. The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, and the disastrous invasion of Iraq were all consequences of a hasty response that was more intent on exacting state violence than keeping Americans safe. In addition to the government’s response, 9/11 was a disaster for Muslim Americans, as the term “terrorist” become synonymous with their faith, leading to a rise in hate crimes towards Arabs and Muslims.

As of writing, there are already plans for further laws on domestic terrorism. Lawmakes are again pushing the Demostic Terrorism Prevention Act (DTPA), originally proposed in 2020. This bill instructs the creation of anti-domestic terrorism offices in several departments. At first glance, this seems like a reasonable proposal, except for a key issue: the participants in the events at the Capitol are being arrested. They posted on social media, showed their faces proudly, and many have already been indicted. This was not a secret plan that required experts in counter-terrorism to forsee; these events were planned on Facebook and happened because of failings of DC police and the rhetoric pushed by right-wing media and politicians. 

The storming of the Capitol was an embarrassment to our country. But rather than viewing it as an opportunity to further empower the state, we should instead focus on understanding the process of radicalization and striking the problem at its root. And before you condemn your political rivals as terrorists, keep in mind how that word has been used in order to enact otherwise unpopular policies.

1 thought on ““Terrorism” is a dangerous label

  1. Clickbait-y headline. Otherwise, the reasoning is sound. I may push back a bit and say that you can recognize that the rioters who broke into the Capitol meet the legal, textbook definition of “domestic terrorists” AND recognize that antiterrorism policy and operstions ought to be focused on understanding radicalization and pursuing means to deradicalize (as opposed to enacting policies that disproportionately, if not purposefully, impact poor people, immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color). These are not mutually exclusive things. The issue seems to be less about the terrorist label itself and more about 1) the solutions to domestic terrorism/radicalization and 2) whether these solutions are pursued in good faith. In the meantime, I think we can, and should, call a spade a spade.

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