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When Isn't It "Terrorism?"

I wasn't really shocked that the feds raided a right-wing "Christian" militia headquartered about 70 miles outside of Detroit. If you know Michigan, the idea of some kooks crawling around the backwoods of Adrian with AK-47s just isn't that jarring. And given how crazy the political fringes of our entire nation have become of late, I guess I'm not even surprised that this Hutaree "Christian" militia has been accused of plotting to kill a law-enforcement official in order to launch a war on cops (and maybe others). Disturbed, sure. Shocked? Not so much.

But I was a little stunned at what I didn't read: Despite the laundry list of suspected offenses laid out by the FBI, I was a little curious as to why no one seems to want to say what seems quite obvious to me -- that these guys are being accused of outright terrorism.

The indictment unsealed in U.S. District Court today claims that the Hutaree planned to kill an unidentified member of local law enforcement and then attack the law enforcement officers who gather in Michigan for the funeral. According to the plan, the Hutaree would attack law enforcement vehicles during the funeral procession with improvised explosive devices rigged with projectiles, which constitute weapons of mass destruction, according to the announcement by U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade.

“Because the Hutaree had planned a covert reconnaissance operation for April which had the potential of placing an unsuspecting member of the public at risk, the safety of the public and of the law enforcement community demanded intervention at this time," McQuade said in the announcement. “Hutaree members view local, state, and federal law enforcement as the ‘brotherhood,' their enemy, and have been preparing to engage them in armed conflict.”

Each is charged with seditious conspiracy, attempted use of weapons of mass destruction, teaching the use of explosive materials, and possessing a firearm during a crime of violence. They face up to life in prison if convicted.

I'm not saying that the Hutaree members who were arrested are terrorists or that they should be called terrorists. They haven't been convicted of anything. I'm talking more about the way we discuss the actions of homegrown extremists like these in so many of the early official narratives. I'm talking about how what the FBI is alleging fits the term quite snugly and  yet there seems to be a deliberate effort to sidestep the very word: terror. Same with the actual early news reports and headlines. In none of the early pieces from the mainstream outlets has the "t-word" come up. There's nothing about "alleged terrorism" or a "terrorist plot" or "suspected terrorists." There's not even a mention of which FBI task force took these guys down. (Was it the same Joint Terrorism Task Force we learned about on the same day we read reports about the slaying of a Detroit imam at a Dearborn warehouse last year?)

I'm not saying be sensational, but terrorism is exactly what these allegations sound like...

Their goal was to "intimidate and demoralize law enforcement, diminishing their ranks and rendering them ineffective," according to the indictment. The group then intended to use the incident to spark a "war" against law enforcement, using bombs, ambushes and prepared fighting positions.

Meanwhile, back in December, Northwest flight 253 had barely landed at Detroit Metro, reports about the attempted bombing had barely come out, before we were inundated with 'round-the-clock cries of an attempted "terror attack" on our city.

Now, imagine for a moment that, instead of cuffing a bunch of scruffy white "Christians" out in the boondocks this past weekend, the FBI had arrested a gaggle of, say, Arab-American Muslims who were threatening to shoot and bomb police officers. Imagine that the feds had busted Iraqi-Americans openly discussing religious war "to keep the testimony" of their god "alive" and openly plotting to kill their countrymen in the name of some misguided politico-religious ideal. Think we'd be as judicious about tossing around the "t-word" then? Neither do I.

But somehow, people like those in this Hutaree outfit get a pass, at least early on. Somehow, people like that Flying Teabagger who crashed his plane into an IRS building in Texas get to be at the center of huge debates about whether he deserved to be labeled a terrorist. There are even those who to this day refuse to call what he did a terrorist act. Extremist, maybe. But terrorist? That's somehow "debatable."

Of course, plenty of fair minded people know "terrorism" certainly can have American roots. Timothy McVeigh taught some of us that. The Ku Klux Klan taught many others. But despite this history, our public discourse is still too willing to associate incendiary terms like "terrorism"  with the alleged evil of one group (usually dark-skinned and/or foreign) over  another (usually white and from right next door).

If the members of this organization actually planned these terrible acts, then these guys apparently so willing to arm themselves for the "end time battles to keep the testimony of Jesus Christ alive" are no different than any plotters who've worked to harm law-abiding Americans in the name of Allah. If what the feds say is true, then their schemes need to regarded as a terrorist plot like any other -- and I'm hard-pressed to see any reason to debate whether to call it that.

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  • 1

    Nailed it, Darrell. It's as inconsistent as any double standard . . . situational, selective and slippery.
    Language carries weight and value, and your look under the headlines spots a finger lifted off the scale this time.
    You've got distinguished company, too. Over at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan uses the T-word purposely and pointedly to mock a disgraced policy:
    "Every single one of these terror suspects is innocent until proven guilty, and shouldn't be seized as enemy combatants and tortured until they confess."

  • 2

    Terrorism targets CIVILIANS not law enforcement or government officials.

    The targeting of law enforcement and the government is what has earned them the sedition charge.

    • 2.1

      Really? I haven't seen that dictionary.
      Neither, evidently, did Rudy Giuliani and others who described last November's shooting rampage at Fort Hood as an act of domestic terrorism. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the reason is partly or largely that accused gunman Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan reportedly opposed the Iraq war and had email contacts with a radical Muslim cleric.
      Darrell raises a provocative point that may not involve who or what is targeted.

    • But in the same vein, the Underwear Bomber wasn't charged with "terrorism" either. He was charged with attempted murder and attempting to blow up an airplane.
    • However, that doesn't mean we don't call him an "alleged" terrorist. I think the same logic should apply to the Hutaree.
  • 4

    All excellent points. The government's reluctance to provide a clear definition of "terrorism" deserves to be challenged.

    But, the writer neglected to mention the government's treatment of environmental groups committed to sabotage (but not murder) have been prosecuted in recent years under anti-terrorism laws as "eco-terrorists." So, there's another dimension that government is considering: whether or not a group, even a domestic one, threatens corporate profits and resources.

    Notably, al Qaeda has made it a practice not only to murder innocent civilians, but to attack corporate symbols, like the World Trade Center, in the process destroying corporate resources, i.e., jets and office buildings.

    Arguable, the primary consideration is whether a group is 'merely' attacking civilians and government officials, or going after the ultimate sacred cow, multinational corporations.

  • 5

    According to Wikepedia (an authority?), there's no international consensus on the definition of terroism. "At present, the International community has been unable to formulate a universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of terrorism.[2][3] Common definitions of terrorism refer only to those violent acts which are intended to create fear (terror), are perpetrated for an ideological goal (as opposed to a lone attack), and deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (civilians)." Problem definitions matter--the words that we attach to problems make a lot of difference in terms of how we look at those problems and the solutions that we come up with to address them. I don't know whether the alleged acts the members of this group are charged with would satisfy the definition above. It would if government law enforcement officials are regarded as "non-combatants" or the alleged acts endangered civilians.

  • 6

    I had this same discussion with my Dad last night.

  • 7

    @jstrate: Of course there is no international consensus on the definition of terrorism. No nation can agree on the legal definition of anything. Just look at ourselves: All 50 states don't even agree on the legal definition of statutory rape. So there is absolutely no expectation that there should be a consensus in the international level.

    @LLewis: You are actually incorrect regarding the government's reluctance to provide a clear definition of terrorism. The United States Code is the entirety of our federal laws. The term "terrorism" is actually codified by law. If you go to 22 USC § 2656f(d)(2), terrorism is defined as a "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." (You can access the entire United States Code here:

    It also goes so far as to distinguish between "terrorism" and "international terrorism."

    According to federal law, the plotting of using some sort of a mass destruction weapon to kill innocent people definitely fits the bill: plotting terrorism. There are 5 litmus tests here:
    1) Is it premeditated? Yes in this case.
    2) Is it politically motivated? Yes.
    3) Is it violence? No brainer.
    4) Are the targets noncombatant? Yes. (Police officers are still considered civilians because they're noncombatant members of society. The difference here is whether they are in the military or not.)
    5) Are the perpetrators a subnational group? Yes. They are a small group of American citizens who call themselves the Hutaree.

    By all accounts of our government's definition of terrorism, these 9 people are definitely suspected terrorists. So the question is why aren't the media willing to label them as such? And this is where Dawsey brings up a good point.

  • 8

    @sthalcyon. Thanks for clarification. Terrorism it is! This plainly is a story (as is true of most stories) that can be framed in a number of different ways. Perhaps reporters (who generally harbor a liberal inclination) are reluctant to stir things up too much and use the headline "Christian Terrorists," a frame that would jar the sensibilities of many church going readers, listeners, and viewers. They are certain to raise a ruckus. Almost all of the media are privately owned in the country and owners look to the bottom line--circulation, ratings, and advertising dollars. Mr. Dawsey would know if journalists experience pressure from above.

  • 9

    Everyone above makes some great points about whether or not to call them terrorists. And the point about terrorist's attacking civilian vs. non-civilian targets makes no sense. Wouldn't it make more sense to classify it as attacks during peace-time or more so as unprovoked? In any case, several responses have mentioned 9-11 specifically in terms of the WTC but have neglected to remember that they also targeted the Pentagon and (probably) the White House... Both are United States Government/Military targets. In short... The Hutaree were plotting to administer terror to unsuspecting United States citizens; regardless of whether they were military, government, or the milk man, shouldn't the act define a terrorist more so than the target?

  • 10

    Refreshing comment today by Andrew Arena, head of Detroit's FBI office, to Washington law enforcement blogger Allan Lengel (a fellow DetNews alumnus):
    'This [case] is a good example of what I've been driving home. Terrorism has many different faces from all walks of life.”
    [ ]

  • 11

    Spot on Darrell.
    I believe that we can learn a lot about how groups like Al Quaida works from homegrown groups like this.

    There are many among the (ignorant) masses who listen to the fatwas of certain right wing Imams and Sheikhs (like Bin Laden) who tells them that the West is out to destroy their religion, way of life and conquer Muslim lands (for oil).

    Here in America we have right wing zelots like Glenn Beck, Pat Robertson, et al, who pretty much says the same thing. The only difference is the religion being attacked according to them is Christianity. Of course Beck & co. who dispense with their daily fatwas are dressed in suits & ties instead of long coats and turbans, so they appear normal to our ignorant masses.

  • 12

    Please note that I referred to government's refusal to provide "a [as in single] clear definition" of terrorism. Yes, there are definitions to be found..too many, too vague and inconsistent.

    The definition you cited - "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents" - is vague and subject to a multitude of interpretations. And, other US laws provide other definitions. Thus, we have seen absurd interpretations, like those described by Joanne Mariner.

    As a homeland security specialist who worked for a federal agency on national level policy, I personally observed that, in actual usage, the term "terrorist" was not applied in a consistent or rational way.

    Behind closed doors, federal officials categorized environmental groups - including Earth First, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and PETA - as "terrorist groups" indistinguishable from al Qaeda, and targeted the groups for surveillance on that basis.

    The government's definitions of terrorism, while vague, specifically exclude the possibility of terrorism with a profit motive; thus, corporations can be protected from "terrorists" but can never be found guilty of terrorism, no matter how many people the knowingly kill with weapons of mass production.

  • 13

    I seem to recall numerous politicians and media personalities demanding the underwear bomber be tried by a military commission rather than the court system. Not sure whether anyone thought he should be waterboarded, though.

    The point is, has anyone on that side demanded military commissions or waterboarding/stress positions, etc. for these arrestees? I'm guessing not, because they look too much like the viewers for Glenn Beck, the listeners for Rush, and the voters for Eric Cantor.

    Who knows, maybe there's a much bigger conspiracy that could be uncovered by a gentle drip of water onto the face, a few hours of discomfort, or a couple of sleepless nights (/snark)

  • 14

    Your comment about the pilot destroys any reasonable aura of objectivity in this debate. Perhaps you would be happy if they described the Hutaree as simply another group of angry Teabaggers?

    I thought so...

  • 15

    I viewed the WTC attack as a criminal event caused by criminals not terrorists ....Once the media and the white house invoked the term terrorists our entire approach changed and it created a conduit for our country to invade Iraq and the rest as they say is history..

    A tragic tale no doubt given the body count in Iraq and the costs of waging and illegal war based upon the false premises of wsd and terrorists who were really criminals..

  • 16

    Idiot. Before you call a few threats on police as "terrorism," ask yourself why the FBI isn't doing anything about the real terrorists, MUSLIM terrorists who are training with weapons and explosives at 35 terrorist training camps in the US and Canada. If you don't believe me just Google "Islamberg"

  • 17

    "In none of the early pieces from the mainstream outlets has the "t-word" come up."
    FoxNews March 29th: "Domestic Terror Plot Foiled" can we get any more mainstream then that?

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