Amid the chaos of the George Floyd protests, President Trump’s base cheered when he uttered these words.
It’s safe to say that the United States is opposed to terrorist organizations. We have authorized the use of fearsome powers against them. When a domestic cause like Antifa gets labeled as terrorist, we can expect a mighty reply from the U.S. government. Which, if you’re fighting against fascism, makes you worry that your proto-fascist government is about to target you.
Because we have codified free speech into our Bill of Rights, we believe our government doesn’t label domestic groups as terrorist. Even the ones we despise and prosecute for their actions. We do so because of a principle called the law of unintended consequences. Economists and game theorists defined this as the effect that whenever a government institutes a nonspecific rule, there will consequences the government does not intend. (Or maybe it does intend and will only claim it does not intend.) This principle leads people like me to resist applying the label to any U.S. group.
Even the Ku Klux Klan.
This week, prominent activists argued that the KKK, which clearly commits terrorist acts, should be designated a terrorist organization. In a now-deleted post which caused quite a lot of grief, I argued that because Trump was wrong to declare Antifa a terrorist group, it was dangerous to label the similarly domestic Ku Klux Klan as one. Better to continue to use the hate group label. That’s what I said.
All of that was wrong. A cursory search of the internet would have told me I made four critical errors before I made the fifth critical error of posting it. My action did not have the consequence I intended, and had some pretty severe unintended ones. In other words, I was the law of unintended consequences incarnate. Here’s what I discovered I believed that turned out to be false.
Mistaken belief #1: We only label international organizations “terrorist.”
This was true once, but it’s not true anymore. The U.S. government labels terrorist organizations in several ways, the most notable being the Department of Homeland Security’s Big, Allied and Dangerous (BAAD) database. There aren’t any U.S. organizations in it. If you search for Ku Klux Klan, this is what you get.
That database isn’t the only way the U.S. government labels organizations. Here’s the FBI’s own website on the Weather Underground.
If the FBI labels you as something, that label is going to stick. Straight up, the FBI calls the Weather Underground a terrorist group. It does so for Timothy McVeigh’s group that planned the Oklahoma City bombing, and others. If it can do that, it can do that for the Klan.
Mistaken belief #2: The U.S. has no definition of domestic terrorism.
This used to be the case. Title 18 of the United States Code described the definition of terrorism solely as “international terrorism,” and defined these acts as occurring primarily outside the jurisdiction of the United States.
On Tuesday I reread the USA PATRIOT Act, the highly problematic piece of legislation on terrorism. I discovered that it amended the definition of terrorism to include domestic terrorism.
Domestic acts are fully laid out in the PATRIOT Act as equal in nature to that of international terrorists. The ACLU site has problems with the definition, noting that it could be used against groups like Greenpeace and Operation Rescue. I thought these concerns had stopped this amendment. They did not.
However, there is no federal domestic terrorism crime. “Acts of terrorism transcending national boundaries” is a federal crime. Domestic terrorism is more frequently prosecuted as other crimes, because of concerns that a domestic terror law would run afoul of First Amendment rights.
That said, the PATRIOT Act says that the U.S. defines acts of terrorism as domestic or international. There is the basis to prosecute the Klan for domestic terror on these grounds.
Mistaken belief #3: Law enforcement organizations that fight terror cannot investigate domestic groups.
The powers that the government has to investigate and prosecute terrorists are vast. I believed that other than on those that support groups like Al-Qaeda, it was illegal to use these powers on Americans.
That’s not true, and hasn’t been for a long time. The FBI site on the Weather Underground contains this paragraph:
The FBI created an anti-terrorist task force with the FBI in 1980, long before the PATRIOT Act. The Ku Klux Klan page on the FBI site says:
The North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force was investigating the KKK in 1997. The federal government has used its antiterrorism powers against domestic groups now for forty years.
Since it can use and has used its antiterrorism powers against the KKK, the U.S. government has precedent to designate the Klan as a terrorist group.
Mistaken belief #4: Trump had designated Antifa as a terrorist group.
When the president stated the U.S. would designate Antifa as a Terrorist Organization,” this scared the hell out of me. I did not want antifascists disappeared. So when Trump called Antifa a terrorist organization, I assumed (like many others did) that he could bring those powers to bear against protesters.
It turns out that he can’t legitimately do so. (Whether he will do so anyway is open to guesswork.) That’s because Antifa isn’t an organization. It’s an umbrella term for antifascism efforts. To get into the BAAD database, a group must have definable membership. Antifa doesn’t have a definable anything. It’s a philosophy: you’re antifascist and want to do something about it.
I worry that groups like Black Lives Matter could be targeted the same way. That might happen. But it has the same likelihood of occurring as Antifa getting the label. BLM’s structure is very loosely defined; it doesn’t meet the definition either, in my estimation. (And of course, it’s not terrorist.)
The Klan is a murderous organization with leaders and headquarters. When its racist goals turn to action, as they have on many occasions, I think that’s terror. The Klan meets all the criteria except having been designated a terrorist organization. If we want to use new tools to fight violent racist groups, this one appears to be legitimate, if a bit risky.
As the law of unintended consequences shows, there are always unintended consequences to acting. But that shouldn’t stop you from acting. When you can enumerate the potential consequences, you should act in a way that shores up your action from those consequences. We can define the domestic terror groups as racist, destructive, and organized. By all of those definitions, Antifa and other friendly groups do not meet the criteria.
It’s worth acting. To have unintended consequences, you must first be consequential. That’s how you make change.
This is the 58th installment of a series on politics and game theory. It has covered impeachment of Trump, Russian collusion, white supremacy, abortion, guns, nuclear war, debt, the NFL, sexual harassment, the Mueller probe, taxes, Trump’s first year, the Clinton Foundation, immigration, parades, the Democrats, hope, family separation, trade wars, Trump’s endgame, the New York Times op-ed, Justice Kavanaugh, Speaker Pelosi, lame ducks, the GOP legacy, the stock market, the Democratic field, shutdowns, third party candidates, the Virginia scandals, in-party impeachment, Trump’s mafia code, college admissions, William Barr, Brexit, Iran, the Mueller Report, Joe Biden, Oregon’s standoff, the environment, Jeffrey Epstein, Trump’s lies, Pelosi’s strategy, Trump’s conviction, political outsiders, Rudy Giuliani, the Berlin wall, protest art, political timing, religion, engagement, Bernie Sanders, progressive unity, the Democratic nominee, the pandemic, unemployment, and rioting.