What is Domestic Terrorism?

In light of the terrible attack in Charlottesville, there's been some debate about what terrorism is. Much of this is a flurry to press or deny the label on the attack.

Let's first go to the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition of terrorism:

The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

By that definition, assuming that the car attack was meant to intimidate the protesters, then the car attack clearly falls into the scope of "terrorism." Protesters were protesting peacefully, and they were attacked out of an apparent desire to intimidate them with violence.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling it a hate crime and opening a federal investigation

Let's look at a few other examples to test the definition.

How about the man who intimidated two young women and stabbed three people in Portland while on an anti-Muslim tirade?

What about "punching Nazis?" The slogan has come back into use after the Charlottesville attack. After some discussion with supporters of the slogan, the conclusion I walked away with was that the core belief behind "punching Nazis" was this: if enough people punched them, they would be silenced. Is this a form of unlawfully using violence and intimidation against civilians in the pursuit of political aims?

Antifa and some other people have engaged in some such violence in the past. On July 3rd, Philadelphia police arrested 3 Antifa members for "stalking" and then "punching" pro-Trump protesters. Before the car attack in Charlottesville, New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg reported that an Antifa protester was beating one of the white supremacist / alt-right protester with a club, though I'm not sure whether that happened before or after the Nazi-initiated violence. In Berkeley, masked Antifa threw Molotov cocktails and burned a lot of stuff in order to shut down a white nationalist "March on Berkeley," and on June 4th threw bricks at protesters in Portland

Now this isn't a question of moral legitimacy, or equivalency. Let's not ask that question. Let's simply ask whether some of Antifa's attacks on protesters would also count as domestic terrorism. Thankfully nobody has died yet from Antifa attacks (as far as I'm aware), but with Molotov cocktails and bricks, someone could. 

Here's the big question: is it domestic terrorism? Is it using violence and intimidation for political ends? Is that the right definition or is another one better?

What other groups might be committing domestic terrorism?

Worth listening in context: our podcast episode on The Effectiveness of Political Violence in History.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.