Thought Crimes, Domestic “Terrorism,” and Police Bullying
The following article was written by Sheldon Richman and published on his blog Free Association, July 24, 2015.

Dylann Roof, who murdered nine black parishioners because they were black has been charged by the central government with committing hate crimes. Words cannot adequately express the evil of Roof’s actions at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and no decent person would want to say anything that be could possibly be construed as sympathetic to this despicable human being. Still this must be said: the concept thought crime has no place in a proper system of law.

That you should get extra punishment because of what you were thinking is too Orwellian to accept. People should not be punished for thinking bad thoughts. The focus should be on what a perpetrator did and not what was in his head. (This is not the place to expound on the nature of punishment. See my article “Crime and Punishment in a Free Society.”)

Roof killed nine innocent people and tried to kill others. We all know that he said he wanted to ignite a race war. Charging him with hate crimes in addition to murder and attempted murder has nothing to do with bringing him to justice. It’s about scoring political points.

Hate-crime legislation is a method by which the national government may preempt the states in the prosecution of aggression against persons and their property. It’s not as though South Carolina was not prosecuting Roof; that machinery is now in motion. He’s been charged with murder and other offenses, and he will stand trial if he doesn’t plead guilty. In South Carolina he faces the death penalty (which is one way that governments commit crimes).

Why should he face more prison time (than life?) or the death penalty at the hands of the feds when murderers with attitudes toward their victims not designated as “hate” do not face those extra penalties? To repeat, in a free society people would not be punished for what they think. Do we really want to suggest that killing for reasons other than race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender is less evil than what Roof did? Hate-crime legislation violates equal protection under the law.

* * *

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s July 14 killing of four Marines and one sailor, and wounding of a Marine and a police officer, at a recruiting center and a naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raise two issues the news media are unwilling to touch.

First, as Glenn Greenwald points out, violence directed at military personnel has not traditionally been thought of as terrorism. Regardless of what U.S. law may say, people have generally used the term to mean violence against civilians, or noncombatants, for political or social purposes. “Whether one is targeting civilian versus military sites,” Greenwald writes, “is a central aspect to how we talk about the justifiability of violence and what is and is not ‘terrorism.'”

But the U.S. government and the war party’s intellectual vanguard have worked hard for many years to distort the meaning of terrorism so that it signifies, essentially, any violence committed, even against a U.S. invasion force, by a Muslim; the corollary is that any violence perpetrated by the U.S government or its allies, most especially Israel, by definition cannot be terrorism.

Greenwald goes on to make an important related point:

The argument that even attacks on military bases should be regarded as “terrorism” rests on the proposition that soldiers who are not actively engaged in combat when attacked are not legitimate targets. Instead, it is legitimate only to target them when engaging them on a battlefield. Under the law of war, one cannot, for instance, legally hunt down soldiers while they’re sleeping in their homes, or playing with their children, or buying groceries at a supermarket. Their mere status as “soldiers” does not mean it is legally permissible to target and kill them wherever they are found. It is only permissible to do so on the battlefield, when they are engaged in combat.

That argument has a solid footing in both law and morality. But it is extremely difficult to understand how anyone who supports the military actions of the U.S. and their allies under the “War on Terror” rubric can possibly advance that view with a straight face. The official framework that drives the West’s military behavior is the exact antithesis of that legal and moral standard. When it comes to justifying their own violence, the U.S. and their closest allies have spent the last 15 years, at least, insisting on precisely the opposite view.

Indeed they have. The U.S. and Israeli governments reserve the “right” to kill “illegal combatants” anywhere anytime. American policy regards the whole world as a battlefield. A target need not be a proven identifiable guerrilla in the process of committing an attack. For Obama the target need only be a military-aged male in a place the United States wants to strike. For details see the drone program and Israel’s operations against leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah and Iranian scientists. If that does not constitute terrorism, how can Abdulazeez’s violence be classified as such?

Greenwald concludes, “To question whether something qualifies as ‘terrorism’ quite obviously is not to say it is justifiable: All sorts of violence is wrong without being ‘terrorism.'”

The other noteworthy point about Abdulazeez’s shooting spree is the media’s continued mystification about how and why an American Muslim would become radicalized and wish to commit violence against Americans here or abroad. What is the attraction of the Islamic States and al-Qaeda? The media have no problem finding terrorism “experts” to speculate on the psychological reasons for and how proactive government measures can prevent it: for example, retired general Wesley Clark, who said, “If someone supported Nazi Germany at the expense of the United States, we didn’t say that was freedom of speech, we put him in a camp, they were prisoners of war.” Thus,

If these people are radicalized and they don’t support the United States and they are disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine. It’s their right and it’s our right and obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict. [Emphasis added.]

“We have got to identify the people who are most likely to be radicalized,” Clark continued. “We’ve got to cut this off at the beginning. I do think on a national policy level we need to look at what self-radicalization means because we are at war with this group of terrorists.”

While the news networks have no trouble finding tough guys like Clark to call for illiberal changes in our “domestic law procedures,” they apparently can’t find anyone to give the most reasonable answer to why someone might “self-radicalize”: namely, the decades of U.S. hegemonic violence against Muslims in the Middle East and the unconditional financial and moral support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Government studies acknowledge this. People convicted of terrorism acknowledge this. “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

I propose an experiment. Let the U.S. government withdraw from the Muslim world entirely and cease all material and rhetorical aid to Israel. After 10 years we’ll see if our society is at risk for “domestic terrorism” from self-radicalized Muslims.

* * *

The tragic death of Sandra Bland, 28, on July 13, three days after a traffic stop in Prairie View, Texas, is another in the recent and fast-growing series of incidents in which police bullying led to the death of individuals who posed no threat to anyone. Maybe Bland committed suicide, as the autopsy apparently shows. What we know with perfect certainty it is that she should never have been in that Waller County jail cell. State trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over when she changed lanes on a quiet street without signaling. She told him she moved over to get out of his way when his car came up behind hers. He had no need to stop her. This was a de minimis infraction — no harm, no foul. But even with the stop, Encinia could have prevented any serious confrontation. All he needed to do was give her the written warning he held in his hand and let Bland go on her way. Instead, he patronized her about her being irritated a the stop. (See the transcript.) But even that could have been the end of it — had Encinia’s intentions been good. The key moment occurred with this:

Encinia: You mind putting out your cigarette, please? If you don’t mind?

Bland: I’m in my car, why do I have to put out my cigarette?

Encinia: Well you can step on out now.

Bland: I don’t have to step out of my car.

Encinia: Step out of the car.

Bland: Why am I …

Encinia (yelling): Step out of the car!

From there it was all downhill. He insisted she get out of the car because she was under arrest, threatening to “light [you] up” with his taser, which he had drawn like a gun. She demanded to know what she was being arrested for, but Enicinia would not answer. Later Encinia’s report said she was charged with resisting arrest and assaulting him, but those things happened after he ordered her out of the car because she was under arrest. It makes no sense.

I think we have a pretty good idea of what happened here. Encinia was offended that his “authority” was not respected without question, as shown by Bland’s refusal to put out her cigarette in her own car when the traffic stop was about to end. At that point, in his view he had to escalate as far as necessary to put her in her place. Maybe race had something to do with his — he’s white, she was black — but race is not a necessary element in the story (though it might been an aggravating factor for Encinia). As I wrote about the Eric Garner case, the cops didn’t intend to kill him, they “intended only to show him who’s boss on the streets of Staten Island — and show him in a way he would never forget.” They showed him, but in a way he’ll never remember, and the same can be said for Sandra Bland.

We gotta fix this cop problem.

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