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What is a Terrorist? The Criminalization of American Dissent in the 21st Century

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March - Occupy Congress
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This Piece was first published in Counterpunch

General safety and openness, for much of the American public, feels permanent. For most Americans, there is an illusion that our safety, comfort, and freedoms rest on a foundation so large and protected as to be immune to collapse -- at least in our lifetimes. Despite the rise of a kind of fascism, the constant teetering on the brink of economic collapse, the threats to our future by climate change, possibly nuclear weapons, and certainly permanent war, there is a feeling, mainly for those of us with privilege, that the way we live our lives -- safely, comfortably, in many ways thoughtlessly -- is deeply engrained into reality and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The structures that sustain our lifestyles, behavior, and even freedoms, are large and complicated structures. In some ways, they have proven rather durable, albeit often in the ugliest ways and at the expense of many. Maybe those structures will outlast those of us alive today. Maybe they won't. The financialized economy, the largely privatized military industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, the domestic security apparatus, the industrial agriculture industry, and more, could very well be our demise as a civilization. There is no reason to be coy about this.

There has been a great deal of speculation -- as there should be -- about how Trump will handle dissent. Most issues with Trump can only be explained by what the officials he places around himself have to say, since Trump himself has been pathetically unclear on every issue. Rather than the question of what Trump will do when the going gets tough for more and more of us, consider the question of how the culture of the American power- elite and its supporters is poised to handle dissent in a moment of rapid political and social tailspin. There have always been, since the nation's inception, totalitarian mechanisms in place to handle dissent within the free society. Where do these mechanisms stand now? It is safe to assume, for the sake of this discussion, that climate change, economic insecurity, the dangers created by the military such as terroristic blowback, and internal conflict within the American population, to name a few, will, to some degree, begin to dictate the terms on which ordinary Americans live their lives in the near-future. The population is likely -- in both constructive and regressive ways -- to lash out at the power elite and at each other.

As of this moment, how is the power-class likely to respond to such blowback to crises?

Much of the language used and action taken after 9/11 handled American dissent ambiguously (at best) and revealed much about how dissenters are viewed by the power-class. It seems likely that nothing about how dissenters were viewed really changed after 9/11 within the security apparatus and the corporate-governmental world, but rather, it was easier to present that view and act upon it given the rattled state of the American public and the visceral reaction to words like "terrorism," "security," and "threat" at that time.

It is useful to start the analysis of this subject around the time of 9/11 and move closer to the present.

On February, 12th, 2002, the FBI's Domestic Terrorism Section Chief of the Counterterrorism Division, James F. Jarboe, testified before the House Resources Subcommittee on Forest and Forest Health, mostly about what are now dubbed "eco-terrorists." The definition of domestic terrorism was, "the unlawful use, or threatened use, of violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States (or its territories) without foreign direction, committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives." Note that the destruction of property constitutes terrorism in this definition.

With a truly brazen stroke of irony, Jarboe went on to say, "Special interest extremists continue to conduct acts of politically motivated violence to force segments of society, including the general public, to change attitudes about issues considered important to their causes. These groups occupy the extreme fringes of animal rights, pro-life, environmental, anti-nuclear, and other movements" (my emphasis). Though many of the crimes cited in this testimony are indeed criminal acts, 1) the relationship between the activists committing them to their role in the "terrorist groups" cited, like Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front, is at times unclear, and 2) the enormous leap from property destruction to "terrorism," given the word's loaded undertones, especially at the time of the testimony in 2002, is dubiously polemic to say the very least. It feels almost condescending to note to the reader that the "special interests" these groups and activists are opposing fall more cleanly under the definition of "terrorists" than the groups and activists themselves -- not that there was ever a time when we could expect such an observation to be noted in an FBI report. The term "eco-terrorist" has increasingly been used to justify the harassing and monitoring of environmental activists in general.

There have been growing concerns about the monitoring of environmentalist groups by counter-terrorist programs and tactics, particularly since 9/11, up to the present day. Furthermore, the surveillance capabilities of the security apparatus are greater now than when Jarboe testified. A Vice report in 2015 on the FBI's monitoring of environmentalists, mostly during the Keystone XL pipeline protests to the construction of the project's southern leg in Texas, sheds light on the overlap between corporate and government surveillance of what are deemed potential "terrorist" threats. For example, Will Potter, author of Green is the New Red, points out in that piece, "At first, the assessment investigations were justified based on the specter of causing a loss of human life, that eco-terrorists were somehow going to kill innocent people ["] That's never happened. Then the justification became more and more that the FBI was investigating potential property destruction, and increasingly that doesn't happen either." If environmentalists are not threats to human life -- even if they are threats to private property (which they are usually not) -- then surveilling them can only be interpreted as protecting "threats" against big business, not against the population. It is, therefore, safe to assume that environmentalists are not targeted for their violence, but for their dissent.

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Matthew Vernon Whalan is a writer and contributing editor for Hard Times Review. His work has appeared in The Alabama Political Reporter, New York Journal of Books, The Brattleboro Reformer, Scheer Post, The Manchester Journal, The Commons, The (more...)

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