It’s been over four months since January 6, 2021, when a mob broke into the national capital in Washington, D.C. Investigating “domestic terrorism” has now become a priority of the Biden administration.
But just what is a terrorist? To most people, the answer is common sense: a terrorist is a person or entity that commits a violent act to achieve or publicize their political aims. A domestic terrorist is a US citizen or permanent resident who commits such an act on US soil.
But alas, that common-sense answer is woefully incomplete. To fill in the gaps, it’s helpful to review some history.
Less than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush signed Executive Order 13224. The order authorizes the president to confiscate – without trial – the property of anyone believed to support terrorism. The order purportedly targets foreign terrorists only, but it also permits the confiscation of property belonging to anyone acting on behalf of foreign terrorists or foreign terrorist organizations.
Unfortunately, the authority to seize property as the War on (Some) Terrorists expanded far beyond actual terrorists.
Long-time readers might remember an article I wrote more than 15 years ago for The Sovereign Society, in which I described the saga of a man named Walter Soehnge. He found himself under suspicion of being a terrorist because he paid off his credit card to save on interest payments, sending in the lump sum of $6,522.
Shortly afterward, Mr. Soehnge checked his account balance. The payment hadn’t been credited. He contacted the bank to find out what had happened and was told that the amount he had sent in was much larger than his normal monthly payment. For the bank holding the credit card, that raised a huge red flag – one that had to be reported to the federal government’s Department of Homeland Security as a potentially “terrorist-related transaction.”
The irony is that some of the 9-11 hijackers reportedly ran up large credit card bills they never paid off. In other words, paying off your credit bill makes you a terrorist suspect – and so does NOT paying it off.
Nuns are also potential terrorists. In November 2005, checks written by the nuns at the Holy Name Monastery in St. Leo, Florida, began bouncing. The nuns contacted their bank, a local branch of Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), and were informed that their account had been frozen in an anti-terrorism investigation.
There was no warning from Wachovia – the bank simply refused payment on 22 checks, returning them to the monastery with the mysterious message “refer to maker” stamped on them. Wachovia also deducted a fee from the monastery’s account for every bounced check.
After some digging, the nuns learned that the problem was that the bank did not have a Social Security number or photo ID on file for one of the convent’s signatories, an 80-year-old nun. That obviously made her a comrade-in-arms to Osama bin Laden, so Wachovia froze the entire account without bothering to notify the nuns.
After considerable inconvenience, both Mr. Soehnge and the Holy Name Monastery were able to regain access to their accounts. However, buried deep within the bowels of the Homeland Security Administration, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and perhaps even the National Security Administration, there almost certainly exists a record of the investigations that was shared with other government agencies.
At the time, I wondered if Mr. Soehnge and the good nuns from the Holy Name Monastery would wind up on the secret database of people forbidden from boarding an airplane – the infamous No Fly List. If you’re on this list, you can’t board a flight leaving or entering the US or even passing over its territory. About 81,000 people were on this list as of 2016, the most recent figure acknowledged by the government.
Perhaps not. Unless, of course, they criticized the War on (Some) Terrorists. Constitutional Law Professor Walter F. Murphy, a prominent critic of President Bush’s, learned this firsthand in 2007. He asked an airline employee why he was being stopped from boarding a flight. The employee replied, “Have you been in any peace marches? We ban a lot of people from flying because of that.” Murphy responded that he had not marched but he had given a lecture criticizing Bush for violating the Constitution. “That’ll do it,” the employee responded.
Other than persons who pay off (or fail to pay off) their credit card bills, nuns, and anyone who criticizes the War on (Some) Terrorists, who else might be considered a terrorist?
Babies are potential terrorists. On at least 14 occasions, babies in their mothers’ arms have not been allowed to board flights because their names showed up on a terrorist watchlist. Naturally, the babies are detained pending an investigation.
Catholics are potential terrorists, too. Besides monasteries, the FBI’s counter-terrorism unit targeted the Catholic Workers Group for investigation because of the group’s “semi-communistic ideology.”
Vegetarians are potential terrorists as well. FBI agents in Indianapolis were so alarmed by the announcement of a “Vegan Community Project” that they called in the agency’s counter-terrorism unit to investigate it.
Thus, it should come as no surprise that “terrorist” groups like the Quakers, Greenpeace, the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee, and the American Civil Liberties Union have also come under surveillance since 9/11.
And obviously, anyone who engages in any kind of civil disobedience is a potential terrorist. Indeed, the USA PATRIOT Act states that any act that has the potential to damage property and that “appears to be intended” to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion constitutes “terrorism.”
But perhaps the most serious domestic terrorist threat in the eyes of by Congress is that posed by animal rights and environmental activists. These groups are classified among the FBI’s top domestic terrorism groups thanks to a 2006 federal law that expanded the definition of “terrorism” to include “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” No violence or threatened violence is necessary – simple “interference” is sufficient.
Today, four months into President Biden’s term, he’s promised to make unearthing domestic terrorism a top priority. And as we described in this article a few weeks ago, he’s also announced his support for a sweeping expansion of the government’s anti-terrorism authority.
While combatting “domestic terrorism” might sound like a no-brainer to support, keep in mind the historical background we just related. Nor has anything really changed. A March 2021 report published by the Director of National Intelligence includes what obvious targets for domestic terrorism investigations (“racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists and militia violent extremists”) but also “those who oppose capitalism and all forms of globalization” along with sovereign citizen movements and both anti-abortion and pro-choice activists.
Terrorism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And if you look in the mirror, you just might behold a “terrorist.”