“Terrorism”: Full of Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing (Part I)

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On September 20, 2019, troubling videos from suburban Chicago’s Woodfield Mall emerged on social media. Footage shows a black Chevrolet Trailblazer plowing into the complex’s Sears and Rain Forest Café, scattering frightened patrons. Although the incident resulted in no fatalities, and minor injuries, panic ensued as rumors flew about an active shooter on the premises.

A state police officer stands outside of a Woodfield Mall entrance after a man drove an SUV into a Sears store in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill., on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP)

In a press conference the same day, Schaumburg’s Police Chief stated there is no indication that the incident is related to any type of terrorist act,” and announced that the ongoing investigation would include assessment of the driver’s mental health. Initially, alleged attacker Javier Garcia was charged with “felony criminal damage to property,”hospitalized for a weeklong psychiatric evaluation, and subsequently denied bail upon his transfer to police custody.

Yet early this morning, the Schaumburg Police Department abruptly changed course, issuing a curious press release in which Garcia’s criminal charges for the September 20 attack were upgraded — to include one felony count of terrorism.

We need to talk about this.

It appears that Cook County defines terrorism as: “any act that causes substantial damage to any building containing (5) or more businesses of any type. Substantial damage means monetary damage greater than $100,000.” Y’all. This is a problem. Absent in the announcement of this additional charge for is ANY mention of political intent — a key component cited in most definitions of “terrorism.” Particularly in light of the Police Department’s earlier dismissal of terrorism as a possible explanation, this omission is striking, bizarre, and — frankly, quite troubling, as “terrorism” is already an inherently empty term.

Further, the Schaumburg Police Department’s press release contends that “a motive has not been determined.” This charge is incomprehensible, given the verbatim language of that appears on the department’s official press release. I’ve never heard a credible terrorism expert (few and far between as they are) define terrorism without mentioning motive — let alone a political intent. Terrorism charges with “no known motive” simply make no sense.

This application of “terrorism” is troubling to me, as it appears (from the — granted — little information given) that the charge is: 1) racialized (blatantly, for once); 2) simply a move to leverage the stiffest possible penalty through the innate public horror “terrorism” connotes. With the level of public discourse these days, a “terrorism” charge will inevitably pollute the jury pool — and renders the concepts of “fair trial” and “presumption of innocence” utterly farcical.

Fun fact — the United States’ criminal justice institutions cannot agree on a definition of terrorism. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, CIA, and Department of Justice all differ in their criteria for “terrorism.” That should tell you something. The United Nations General Assembly openly admits that no convention to address the problem of terrorism can be issued — as no shared definition exists among member nations. Again, this lack of consensus on such an “urgent global phenomenon” is a clue.

“Terrorism,” to be blunt, is an inherently useless term. The phrase is simultaneously too vague yet entirely meaningless to serve a purpose in criminal law. FYI, the single best book on terrorism ever written, in my opinion, is Lisa Stampnitzky’s Disciplining Terror: How Experts Invented ‘Terrorism’ (2013).

Of course, I have more to say about the subject (shocking, I know). Frankly, expect this post to proliferate into an endless series – much like the Eternal War onTerror.

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