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Would domestic terrorism law help prevent extremist shootings?

Free Press wire reports | 11/8/2018, 6 a.m.
The package bombs sent to Democrats across the country and the killings of Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue may seem ...
Cesar Sayoc, left, who is charged with sending pipe bombs to prominent Democrats around the country, appears in federal court in Miami on Oct. 29 in this courtroom sketch. The 56-year-old was transferred on Monday to New York City, where he will be tried. Daniel Pontet/Associated Press

WASHINGTON

The package bombs sent to Democrats across the country and the killings of Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue may seem like clear-cut cases of terrorism. But the suspects will almost certainly never face terrorism charges.

The reason: There’s no domestic terrorism law in the United States.

Whether there should be one is a matter of debate. On one hand, there’s the belief that white supremacists who kill for ideology should get the same terrorism label as Islamic State group supporters. On the other, there’s concern about infringing on constitutional guarantees to protect free speech, no matter how abhorrent.

In the absence of domestic terrorism laws, the U.S. Justice Department relies on other statutes to prosecute ideologically motivated violence by people with no international ties. That makes it hard to track how often extremists driven by religious, racial or anti-government bias commit violence in the United States. It also complicates efforts to develop a universally accepted domestic terror definition.

Mary McCord, a former top Justice Department official in the Obama administration, favors a law that “puts domestic terrorism on the same moral plain as international terrorism.”

“Terrorism offenses are done purposely to send a much broader message, and so having that be the charged crime puts that label on that and says, ‘This is someone who committed a terrorism act,’ ” she said.

The discussion in some ways is more about labels than consequences. Even without a specific law, the Justice Department has other tools available, including explosives, hate crime and firearm possession charges. The penalty can easily be every bit as severe as in the international terrorism cases the Justice Department routinely brings against people who align themselves with foreign extremist groups and carry out violence in their names.

Both Cesar Sayoc, accused of sending more than a dozen explosive packages to high-profile critics of President Trump, and Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, could face decades in prison. In the case of Mr. Bowers, charged in a 29-count complaint with federal crimes including using a firearm to commit murder and obstructing the free exercise of religion, prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty. The same punishment was sought for Dylann Roof in the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C.

Prosecutors are treating the synagogue shooting as a hate crime rather than domestic terrorism. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told police officials on Oct. 29 that the Justice Department is aggressively prosecuting hate crimes, saying, “The vile forces of bigotry and hatred will not prevail.”

Opponents of domestic terrorism laws say prosecutors already have enough tools. They worry what would happen if law enforcement were empowered to apply the same tools to a domestic investigation, like a secret warrant to monitor communications, as they have for international investigations. They also contend that increased powers could run afoul of civil liberties protection and lead to groups being classified as terror organizations just because the government didn’t like their ideology.