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BROWN: Don’t be too eager to label Charlottesville ‘terrorism’

A makeshift memorial of flowers and a photo of victim, Heather Heyer, sits in Charlottesville, Va., Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017. Heyer died when a car rammed into a group of people who were protesting the presence of white supremacists who had gathered in the city for a rally. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

James Alex Fields Jr., the 20-year-old Ohio man accused of crashing his car into a crowd of Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrators, is a hate-filled, racist murderer from what I can tell.

But is he a terrorist?

A lot of people on both ends of the political spectrum have rushed to say so, among them U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Sessions said Fields’ “evil attack,” which killed one woman and injured others, meets the legal definition of domestic terrorism and is being investigated as such.

Evil? Yes. Terrorism? I remain doubtful.

That puts me in an uncomfortable minority with others concerned that we not allow our rightful concern over white supremacist and neo-Nazi hate groups to be used to undermine civil liberties, if not necessarily in this case then in others to follow.


At the very least, it’s a nuanced question that requires some understanding of the legal definition of terrorism in the U.S., which is actually multiple definitions.

It was for that reason that I found myself in the rare position of agreeing—ever so briefly — with Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday when he initially refused to be pinned down by reporters about whether the Charlottesville attack was an act of terrorism.

“You define terrorism,” said Rauner, who had already properly decried the incident, saying in part: “There is no place in American society and American political discourse for racism, for hatred or violence.”

Two hours later, after his Democratic opponents jumped on the issue and tried to put him in the same trick bag as President Donald Trump, Rauner had a change of heart and issued a written statement.

“The deadly violence in Charlottesville this weekend is abhorrent and absolutely an act of domestic terrorism,” said the statement from Rauner’s office. “Racism, hatred and violence have no place in our society. The individuals responsible should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

Thomas A. Durkin, a Chicago defense attorney who teaches national security law at Loyola University, told me Rauner was right the first time.

In Illinois, he noted, we define terrorist as “any person who engages or is about to engage in a terrorist act with the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population.”

The federal government does not have a crime of domestic terrorism, although the Patriot Act expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic acts in violation of the law that appear to be intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population or to coerce the policy of the government.

Absent evidence not available at this point, I’m not sure how it could be proved the 20-year-old Fields’ intent went beyond harming the counter-protesters on the street in front of him out of misguided rage.

Before I’m accused of being soft on white supremacists, I must make clear there are few groups of people I loathe more. As a white man who is very clear about the advantages that status has given me in our society, I have no use for white people who claim they are the aggrieved ones.

And I also know these white nationalist groups can be very dangerous.

But if you open the door to investigating people on their political beliefs, you don’t know where it will lead. Keep in mind there are people in this country who wanted Black Lives Matter investigated as a hate group after four police officers were murdered in a Dallas ambush last year.

Durkin, a committed civil libertarian, said his concern is that this incident will be used as an excuse for Congress to approve a domestic terrorism statute.

“The consequences of that would be disastrous,” he said, arguing it would allow federal agencies to “use all their fancy techniques to investigate every group under the sun.”

We already have plenty of laws to deal harshly with someone who maliciously drives a vehicle into a crowd.

Imagine for a moment the discussion we’d be having if one of the counter-protestors had been at the wheel and the racists had been the victims.