Terrorism has been a grave concern throughout the United States and around the world. Whether perpetrated by foreign nationals with a vendetta against the U.S. government or radical groups within the country, political violence seems increasingly common. Regardless of its source, terrorism involves acts meant to inflict terror on a particular group of people through deadly and provocative means.
Federal laws prohibit terrorism and terroristic threats (threatening to detonate a bridge if your demands aren’t met, for instance), while most states also have anti-terrorism laws and procedures in place.
Terrorism is different from other crimes. Most crimes punish an act itself. The intent of the person carrying out the act may affect the defenses available or the severity of the punishment, but in the case of terrorism the intent of the person is critical to the definition of the crime because of its very nature. To commit terrorism is to intend a particular goal through causing fear in others.
Terrorism, as defined in 18 U.S. Code, Chapter 113B, involves acts of violence that appear intended to:
Intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
Influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
Affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.
Most acts of terrorism or terroristic threat would be considered a crime regardless of the intent of the person responsible. These acts, such as shootings, bombings, and other acts of violence would result in criminal liability regardless of the intent or purpose of the perpetrators. These crimes become terrorism when they are intended to intimidate civilians and the government.
In many circumstances, intent is difficult to prove. Normally, the burden of proving intent is on the prosecution, but in the case of terrorism, acts that “appear to be intended” to intimidate or coerce may still qualify as terroristic crimes without additional evidence.
U.S. Code defines both foreign and domestic terrorism roughly the same, hinging on the perpetrator’s intent. The coordinated terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, for instance, were considered acts of international terrorism because they “transcend[ed] national boundaries in terms of the means by which they [were] accomplished,” per the legal definition.
However, despite “domestic terrorism” being defined by U.S. Code, there are no specific penalties prescribed for acts of domestic terrorism. Inclusion of the term allows the federal government to investigate such crimes, but they’re charged as murder, assault, or other related crimes. In other words, there is no “substantive offense” for domestic terrorism under federal law.
One prominent example of a domestic terrorism-related conviction involved Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1995. McVeigh hoped the bombing would lead to a revolution. He was convicted for his use of weapons of mass destruction and for the murders for which he was responsible and put to death by lethal injection, but he wasn’t charged with “terrorism” per se.
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