The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Define Terrorist 

Seems like a pretty simple concept right? They're the monsters that flew the planes into the buildings... the ones who blow up trucks in Baghdad and in Singapore. Sort of like the infamous pornography test in the Supreme Court, I know a terrorist when I see one. But let's say you want to write a law that imposes harsher penalties on terrorists, or somehow imposes extra restrictions on the handling of people who are suspected of terrorism... now it becomes more difficult. Now you have to enumerate actual properties that terrorists share, that are unique to them. I read an opinion piece on today talking about just such a concept:

A new system that allows preventive detention -- holding people without meeting the traditional burdens of proof required in criminal proceedings -- should be limited solely to those suspected of terrorist acts. Terrorist acts should be defined narrowly as those that involve the threat of violence and/or risks to the health and safety of the public, that are designed to force a change in government policy or intimidate the public, and/or that are taken to advance a political, religious or ideological cause.

They think that's narrow? Risk the health and safety of the public... you can take almost any act of violence and make it meet that definition. Hell, you can say almost anything advances some sort of ideological cause with a little creativity. And what act of violence doesn't intimidate the public?

You could say that gang members are really terrorists. They often use acts of random or directed violence against people in their neighborhood. People who live in those neighborhoods will tell you that they are definitely intimidated... some won't leave their homes at night. What cause are they trying to advance? I'm sure some prosecutor would say that they want to change drug laws, or advance changes to civil rights.

By this definition, someone who commits a so-called "hate crime" is a terrorist. They attempt to instill fear in a particular group through acts of violence, often in an attempt to change how a certain group are treated. The fact that they are attacking only a certain group for specific reasons could be deemed to be an "ideological cause". So there you have it... they're terrorists too. It's actually an interesting mental exercise to go through the above definition and see who you can turn into a terrorist.

What about abortion activists... not to mention environmental activists? Granted not all of them resort to acts of violence... but we had best detain all of them just in case they might.

The above mentioned article mentions a couple cases where people were perhaps wrongly released because we couldn't hold suspected terrorists under special circumstances:

In New Jersey earlier this year, a police officer noticed a man who appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent dressed in business clothes near a vital bridge.

The officer approached the man and found out he was wearing a wet suit under his business suit and carrying a knife and an underwater camera.

Highly suspicious, but not illegal.

What about his behavior, or the circumstances make him a terrorist? How do you determine his "cause", which is the all important third piece to the terrorist definition, from his clothing or the circumstances of his detention? And there is the rub. I suppose we could just say that anyone of middle eastern decent who looks like he might commit violence is a terrorist... but I think we know the problem with that. In reality, in the majority of circumstances, we can only tell whether someone is an terrorist until they've actually committed and act of terrorism. That's not to say that prevention is impossible. Rather we can only really prevent an act of violence, while we witness an act of terrorism. It's only until we have can analyze the act in terms of its goal that we can say whether it is terrorism. The only time we can determine this before hand is if we have all sorts of intelligence that says that he's going to blow up building X for Allah... but that's not really the circumstance that they're talking about in this article. He's simply talking about a suspicious person.

So am I completely wrong here? Are these types of laws dangerous? Should we pass them through and trust prosecutors and police officials won't abuse them?


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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.

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