WASHINGTON – The criminal charges coming out of the Charlottesville, Va., last month, may perfectly describe the offenses — murder, discharging a firearm, malicious wounding — but the term terrorism is not mentioned.
The United States doesn’t have a domestic terrorism charge that can be lodged against individuals or organizations that operate wholly within the country. The FBI doesn’t have a unit specifically dedicated to tracking the violent extreme right or left.
This month, the Justice Department’s State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training program, which has trained more than 142,000 law enforcement officers in how to deal with domestic terrorists, will run out of funding. It received $2 million annually over the past three years, but the Trump administration requested no funding and Congress agreed.
“A domestic terrorism statute, that’s something Congress could deal with when they come back [this] week,” said David Schanzer, a Duke University expert on domestic terrorism and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. “These crimes do more in terms of the impact on the community, creation of fear, intimidation, than other crimes. That should be acknowledged.”
In the days after the Charlottesville attack, where white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters — one of whom, Heather Heyer, was killed — the House Homeland Security Committee announced it was planning for “hearings on the threat of domestic terrorism.” No date has been set. A terror threat snapshot on the committee website focuses entirely on violent radical Islamist groups.
Trump has made a point of defining terrorism in terms of “radical Islamic terror.” He cut federal funding to the Chicago-based Life After Hate organization that the Obama administration had praised for its work in rehabilitating white Supremacists and neo-Nazis. The group is still operating without the federal grant.
Law enforcement can use the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 in some domestic terror attacks. But the act, which covers the rights of victims to seek reparations from foreign nations and has a section on bomb materials, only applies to the most deadly attacks. It leaves law enforcement with far fewer options than it has in domestic terrorism cases with international ties.
Experts acknowledge that it is impossible to treat domestic terrorism exactly in the same way U.S. law enforcement treats international terrorism.
“If an American gives money to the Islamic State [of Iraq and Syria], that’s a crime,” Schanzer said. “If a violent neo-Nazi gives money to a violent neo-Nazi organization in the United States, that’s constitutionally protected free speech. That won’t change, and it shouldn’t.”
Mark Pitcavage, who studies the violent far right for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, suggested that a new domestic terrorism law would make a substantial difference.
“Do we need it? No,” he said. “But it would be a good thing. It would allow us to keep better statistics, and tracks trends.”
Statistics that don’t include 2017 indicate that violent far right extremists killed 158 people in the U.S. between Sept. 12, 2001, and the end of 2016, in 89 attacks. During the same time span, violent radical jihadis killed 119 people in 31 attacks in the United States.