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Why It Is Important to Separate Criminal Acts from Acts of Terrorism

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By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University

The world is a dangerous place with crimes and acts of terrorism committed every day. But are crime and terrorism the same thing? Should they be dealt with by society the same way? To answer those questions, we need to review terrorism, crime and their historical perspectives in America.

What Constitutes Terrorism?

A lengthy government definition of terrorism is available in the United States Code (USC) Chapter 1138. Terrorism includes violent acts, coercive in nature, by which the perpetrator intends to influence the actions of a government.

At some level, terrorism is always political in nature. Terrorism seeks to influence a government to change in some way or even to overthrow a government and replace it with another.

What Is a Crime?

Crime is defined as government-prohibited acts because they are deemed by society to be threatening and harmful to the public. Crimes are typically categorized as either misdemeanors or felonies, based on their seriousness.

People commit crimes for a variety of reasons – from personal greed to the desire to kill another human being. In a criminal act, there is typically no intent to affect or replace a government or to force an alien ideology upon others. As a result, criminal acts do not fall into the same category as terrorism.

An example of a well-publicized crime was the recent mass shooting in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. While it was certainly a terrible crime – and resembled a terrorist act in its frightening rampage – there was no political motivation behind it. As a result, this event cannot be considered an act of terrorism.

What Are Terroristic Acts?

 Terroristic acts, quite simply, are politically or religiously motivated actions that create fear in the people who are the target of the act and others. Terroristic acts often result in numerous deaths.

When a militant faction seeking a regime change detonates an improvised explosive device (IED) in a crowded café, for example, it creates public fear and causes multiple deaths and injuries. Clearly, this attack is an act of terrorism.  

Similarly, a violent criminal assault is a terroristic act when it creates terror in the intended victim. Thus, the terminology “terroristic act” stands apart from the definitions of either crime or terrorism per se.

The Parkland school shooting above was a terrible crime. So was the September 2004 mass school shooting in Beslan, North Ossetia, in the Russian Federation. It was conducted by Chechen separatists with a clear political agenda. Both acts can be referred to by the bridge term “terroristic acts.”

Why Separate Terrorism and Criminal Acts?

Acts of terrorism fall into the political arena and are a matter of national concern and security. Terrorist acts bring into play both civil and governmental authorities that act jointly to control political issues.

For example, the married couple who killed 14 people and wounded 21 others in the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack in 2015 intended to strike a blow for Muslim extremism. In effect, that act could be construed as an act of war against the United States.

The same can be said for the 2009 shooting by an Army major at Fort Hood, Texas. The attack killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others, nearly all of them unarmed soldiers.

A key difference between an act of terrorism and a criminal act is that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil can legally bring military forces into play. The U.S. military is prohibited by law from acting on U.S. soil unless the circumstances are very unusual, and Congress specifically orders the use of federal troops to enforce civilian laws.

There are historical reasons for the limitations on the use of military force within the United States that date back to pre-Revolution times.

Historical Background for Restricting Use of Federal Troops on US Soil

The initial impetus for restricting the use of federal troops for civilian purposes dates from the British Parliament’s Quartering Acts of 1765 and 1774. Prior to 1765, during the French and Indian War, British troops were often housed in private homes without the consent of their colonial owners.

The first Quartering Act restricted the seizure of private homes, but required colonial residents to provide food, bedding and other necessities to British troops housed in barns, taverns and other privately owned buildings. The law was changed in 1766 to allow the quartering of troops even in private homes.

The second Quartering Act removed the requirement to provision British troops at colonialists’ expense. Both Quartering Acts served to increase tensions between the American colonies and the British government.

With this experience in mind, the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids quartering federal troops with private citizens.

The second seminal experience reinforcing Americans’ aversion to using federal troops to regulate civilian affairs stems from the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. During Reconstruction – a turbulent, violent, and corrupt time in American history – federal troops were often used to enforce state laws in the five military districts created to govern the former Confederate states.

The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, enacted at the end of Reconstruction, restricted the federal government’s powers to use federal military personnel to enforce state laws. However, the act does not apply to state National Guard troops or to the U.S. Coast Guard, which operates as a law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security.

Government Overreach Concerns Prompted Separation of Criminality and Terrorism Law

A primary argument for keeping terrorism and criminal law separate stems from the potential for federal government overreach during times of crisis. Wars, insurgencies and terrorist groups are a greater threat to society than common criminal acts, even those of a very heinous nature.

Placing terrorism and crime on the same legal plane would enable the government to take actions against its citizens and temporarily waive their rights and privileges, a tactic not normally considered legal. It is a fair assumption that most Americans do not want a return to military interference as was experienced in colonial times or during the bitter era of Reconstruction.

About the Author

Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He is an Assistant Editor for the International Journal of Risk and Contingency Management (IJRCM). He holds a B.A. in law enforcement from Marshall University, an M.A. in military history from Vermont College of Norwich University and a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration in criminal justice from Northcentral University. Jeffrey is also a published author, a former New York deputy sheriff and a retired Army officer, having served over 20 years in the U.S. Army.

Susan Hoffman is a Managing Editor at Edge, whose articles have appeared in multiple publications. Susan is known for her expertise in blogging, social media, SEO, and content analytics, and she is also a book reviewer for Military History magazine. She has a B.A. cum laude in English from James Madison University and an undergraduate certificate in electronic commerce from American Public University.

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