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August 19, 2009
The Continuing Cheapening of the Word "Terrorism"
A pickup truck driver is accused of trying to run over a bicyclist and then coming after him brandishing an ax after a road-rage incident in Burnsville last weekend.
The driver, Mitchel J. Pieper, 32, of Burnsville, was charged in Dakota County District Court on Tuesday with making terroristic threats, a felony, in connection with the altercation Saturday. The bicyclist was not seriously hurt.
Seems like a normal threat to me. Or assault, with intent to do bodily harm. What's wrong with those criminal statutes?
Let's save the word "terrorism" for things that actually are terrorism.
Posted on August 19, 2009 at 1:08 PM
• 60 Comments
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If you don't support a broader meaning of the word "terrorism", then the terrorists have won.
Or maybe a hate crime. Wait, isn't terrorism a hate crime? I'm confused.
I will go out on a limb here, Bruce, and tell you that there is _no_ necessity of "terrorism" statutes.
Maybe if we start referring to 9/11 as "conspiracy to commit many counts of murder, 3000+ counts of murder in the first degree, plane hijacking, etc" we start seeing things without the "coloring" that the word "terrorism" brings. IMHO, the crimes I described are serious enough (and warrant punishment enough).
The appropriate response also changes:
Crime -> appropriate response: police investigation, prosecution, punishment of those responsible;
"Terrorism" -> response: two wars, "state of war" (less civil liberties)...
Talk about a case of repeated warnings breeding complacency... these days when I hear about "terrorism" it has no meaning. It can be used for anything from petty crime to being suspicious in the wrong place...
At least they're not having to define actual terrorism attacks as "superterrorism".
I suppose it is just possible that the police were all English graduates and using the word "terroristic" (presuming it is a real word) in a technically correct manner to describe "behaviour similar to that which might strike terror in the victim."
On reflection, it's much more likely that including the magic word in the charges allows the police to use more lax procedures gathering evidence.
Let it go to trial and let some shyster defense attorney get an acquittal because he successfully argues that it isn't "terrorism". Then watch for changes in what charges are brought.
Actually, this is good, if people get desensitized to the word 'terrorism' then it starts to lose its bite. If terrorism is used to talk about 'terroristic bar fights' or 'terroristic speeding' then people begin to realize that terrorism isn't anything to worry about. Once people stop caring about terrorism, the terrorists have lost.
The statute defining "terroristic threat" dates back to 1971 and has a maximum sentence of five years. It's likely that law was the tool the county attorney believed could mostly likely result in a conviction, and it's likely that 609.713 is often used in the state of MN for these kinds of incidents.
I completely agree that cheapening the word "terrorism" is a bad thing and I additionally agree with the post above that we don't need to color crimes with emotional words and should just address the crimes that are actually being committed without the added witch burning.
However, this specific term is interesting and has come up on this blog before, because unlike most examples of cheapening of the word terrorism, I know personally that "terroristic threatening" has been around for at least 10 years before 9/11.
I remember when I was in middle or elementary school, being interviewed by a police officer about threats a bully made to another student on the bus that I was witness to. The bully was being charged with "terroristic threatening".
I don't think this one is part of the conspiracy to dissolve your civil liberties.
Cheapening the word "terrorism" is great. It means that we'll eventually get back to treating crime as crime, policing as policing and we'll be able to assess all of the "anti-terrorist" measures rationally.
So I was watching this movie the other day, and it was really scary - terrifying, I might say. So I'm pressing criminal charges.
(Also, when clicking on the link to this post from Google Reader, I got this error:
The requested page could not be found.
filemtime() [function.filemtime]: stat failed for /htdocs/www/blog/templates_c/%%2A^2A9^2A9DE3F0%%mt%3A119.php
A refresh brought me to the post though)
A brief bit of googling suggests that "terroristic threats" in many jurisdictions has nothing to do with what Bruce considers "actual terrorism" such as people blowing up buildings and other movie plots.
Instead, it's a rather mundane term of legal art that essentially means "threat". It's a bit stronger than "normal threat" in that the victim must believe they are being threatened with death or other grave bodily harm, as opposed to mere violence. It's the difference between a tough guy saying "I'm going to kick your ass" and someone with a gun or other deadly weapon (like the above-mentioned ax) saying "I'm going to kill you" in a way that makes it seem clear that he really is going to kill you.
The use of the term "terroristic threat" predates September 11, 2001 and our national focus on terrorism. In some jurisdictions it's called "criminal threat". But despite the name, it has nothing to do with blowing up buildings. And despite Bruce's ignorance, there's no reason it should.
Fritz is correct. The statute is almost 40 years old and applies in instances where traditional assault statutes might not. In any event, I find it hard to believe a 1971 statute supports the "continuing cheapening" of anything in 2009.
A friend of mine in High School was charged with 2 counts of 'misdemeanor terrorism'. this sort of thing has been around since before 911
When I lived in Kentucky 20 years ago, I remember a statute prohibiting what was called "terroristic threatening". This is nothing new.
ditto to everyone else: Making Terroristic Threats is a very old term of law.
I agree with Terroristic Threats comments by several above. Terrorism in post-911 is over used to possible misuse (if one goes to the definition). Assault as noted, doesn't work (perhaps since no actual bodily harm?) - its a threat to cause mental terror. Soooo - if the terrorists go beyond actual terror and actually harm persons, should they be called "assaultists". Incidentally, I abhor the use of "jihadist" since the connotation (in arabic) actually is contrary to the use of "terrorist". "Extremist" doesn't work either - are they going to appear on ESPN? (There is another thought - get the terrorists to 'combat' us in olympiad style "Xtremist" games instead of IEDs!)
It's just semantics Bruce, what harm could possibly come of playing fast and loose with the language?
What's that? Orwell who?
As far as accuracy goes, being confronted by a belligerent axe-wielding miscreant is by far more likely to move me to feel terror than anything I've heard our government describe as terrorism.
Unfortunately, lobbying to restrict the use of "terrorism", "terrorist", "terror", etc. to their traditional meanings won't be effective because that's not how languages evolve. Words and expressions fall out of favor, but rarely if ever retreat from inflation of usage back to a more limited prior usage.
Instead of resisting inappropriate use to retain value, I propose we devalue these terms completely by using them in every circumstance where they can possibly make grammatical sense:
"Honey, I think the baby terrorized her diaper again..."
"...be advised of heavy terror-hour traffic on I-435 this afternoon..."
"...you damn terrorist trailer-trash, I'm gonna anally terrorize you..."
"This coffee is terror-ific!"
"Dude, don't terrorize my mellow."
"In football, the Salem Insurgents terrorized the Shelbyville Political Advisors last night 5 to 3..."
"Shop Widget-Hut! Our prices are so low, it's TERRORISM!"
"Take it from me man... Stay away, that woman is nothin' but terror..."
and of course...
"If you cannot comment without terrorizing others, your posts will be removed and you will be banned from this blog."
See? They're already losing their meaning!
One should not be particularly surprised at the predilection of federal, state and local law enforcement and prosecutors to use veritable hyperbole in the selection and application of laws and ordinances so named as to enhance the severity of the act and to elicit a favorable trial outcome. Even prior to the creation of laws regarding 'terrorism' (e.g. acts against American citizens and property intended to destroy large quantities of life and/or resources specifically for the goal of undermining support for U.S. federal leadership at home and abroad), U.S. Judicial system had a way with words.
As an example, too often you hear of people being charged with enhanced statutes (and jail sentences which have led to the overcrowding of prisons) because they were 'under the influence' of illicit drugs or alcohol, while there were already laws on the books for the crimes they were being charged with (e.g. vehicular manslaughter, bank robbery, etc.). The people that were mowed down by the car that veered through a crowd are just as dead, and there's really no indication that the enhanced statute actually diminished the likelihood that this crime would have been committed in any event. This is just a case in point, but there are numerous examples.
I think the point is (which Bruce makes well), is to simply enforce the laws on the books, rather than reaching for an overkill law in order to make it look like you're a prosecutor who's 'tough on crime', or 'a contributor to the war on terrorism' in order to bolster your political clout. And let laws against terrorism actually be used for such acts as befit the definition.
A man with road rage getting out of a pick-up truck with a hand axe is pretty terrifying.
I run around in Call of Duty 4, and blow myself up with C4 explosive. Sometimes I put them under crates A and B on search and destroy mode and then run at the enemy and detonate myself. I ruin Multiplayer for everyone else, and I enjoy it.
I guess I'm a terrorist too, lol.
I doubt it would have been nearly so 'terrifying' an event if we weren't still having a national debate on firearms at the state and local levels. At least the Supreme Court thinks so... (e.g. District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), No. 07-290)
"Cubs Win! Cubs Win!".
Actually it is the *publishing* of the feat as news what turns it into a terrorist attack.
Funny enough, those "domestic" crimes that happen in everyday circunstances, when the press publishes them, turn into "terrorist", as they cause terror in a significant fraction of the population...
Not sure if I'm clear...
All the terrorism-supporting comments here show clearly that the terrorism statutes are not harsh enough! I for one await the day that even potential terrorism, thinking of doing terrorism and in the final consequence, potentially thinking of doing terrorism leads to life in prison or outright execution! (No, wait, execution would be bad for the prison industry. Lest leave it at life in prison.)
Seriously though, this terrorism inflation just indicates the level of intelligence prevalent in government and law enforcement functions: not very high.
@Santiago Gala: All too clear. However this would make the media the terrorists, not the original perpetrator, as the media benefits most from the fear created and did quite obviouly create it intentionally. No such intent or benefit with the original perpetrator...
This reminds of the trend to try ever younger kids as "adults" when they perpetrate a particularly heinous crime.
In the same way folks throw "terrorism" around to have a defendant treated harsher than he or she should be treated, teenagers as young as 12  are being tried as full-fledged adults just so the population can feel like justice (revenge) is served.
Terrorism is defined as the use of fear or terror as a means of coercion.
Take that as you will, but with that definition, people are definitely misusing the term.
Much the way that 1st degree murder denotes prior intent, terroristic threatening should denote intended coercion.
Arg, for the last freaking time, "terroristic threat" is a time-honored term in law with a very specific definition, and has little to nothing to do with the more common use of the word "terrorism". Whether or not screaming your lungs out at a guy while brandishing an axe qualifies under that definition is up to the courts, but I suspect it just might.
If anything, Bruce has this precisely backwards - the sense of "terror" as "violent acts motivated by radical political or religious ideology" (or to the more simple-minded, "exploding Muslims") has overshadowed the plain descriptive sense of the term.
This is almost exactly as bad as people who say evolution is "only a theory" - because they don't understand that the term "theory" in science is not synonymous with "hunch".
Or like complaining that the newspaper's daily Cryptoquip cheapens the word "cryptography".
Seriously. Drop it.
@KSEingang: "Drop it?" Please.
(ok, now that we've proven than my Google-fu is equal to your own).
You're quite welcome to slice the proverbial vocabulary hair, but *many* words/definitions have different appreciations dependent upon the various and sundry contexts, which can be social or political, or legal. I don't think Bruce is any farther off the mark than, let's say, your notion that the one-and-only definition that applies is 'X'.
Despite my clearly glib opening, I do respect your fastidiousness (especially on the topic of evolution). However, the application of a law can, and often does, vary greatly from its intent at inception. While 'terroristic threat' is, as you state, a relatively well defined term within many legal contexts, Bruce's point (which I share) is well taken.
Many laws are written broadly, because Man realizes that his prescience is rather limited. I think the point here is that in the context of this subject, less is more.
Bruce, here in California the statute is California Penal Code 422. It is NOT the crime of "terrorism" but the crime of making a serious threat that causes the victim to feel great fear.
"422. Any person who willfully threatens to commit a crime which will result in death or great bodily injury to another person, with the specific intent that the statement, made verbally, in writing, or by means of an electronic communication device, is to be taken as a threat, even if there is no intent of actually carrying it out, which, on its face and under the circumstances in which it is made, is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened, a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat, and thereby causes that person reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety or for his or her immediate family's safety, shall be punished by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year, or by imprisonment in the state prison."
From the case law history linked here (http://www.stalkingalert.com/pc422cases.htm) PC 422 predates September 11th, 2001 by at least ten years.
Wait, has anyone actually *defined* terrorism legally or specifically?
One of the main reasons we are in the situation we are in right now is use of code words like "terrorist", which is acceptable in public, but can mean *very* different things to different people (Arab, anarchist, bomber, zealot, photographer, liberal, bogey man, anyone wearing a coat in the summer, &c.).
My point isn't that there's just one definition of "terror", it's that there is a fairly precise legal one for "terroristic threat" in any given jurisdiction. Here in MN (where this event took place), it is not necessary for the threat to be public or against a group of people, and in fact it is a common charge in domestic abuse cases. None of this is new, or has anything to do with 9/11. This law and its application have been the rule for decades.
By my take, the charge seems to fit the crime, and the newspaper is factually reporting the specific charge. From that perspective it's hard to see what Bruce's complaint is - maybe he'd like the name of the law changed to fit perceptions in "the post-9/11 world", but that seems to me like exactly the sort of reactionary silliness he'd usually be arguing *against*.
In any case, calling this "cheapening the word terrorism" is a complete misunderstanding of what's going on here. And this has been explained here so often it's hard to see how or why Bruce keeps reporting this as if it's breaking news - "terroristic threats" charges are filed in Hennepin county every day of the week, and yet society has no more succumbed to panic here than anywhere else in the nation.
@No To The Word Terrorism
What you describe is a "pre-911 mindset." This is known in other circles as a "not bat-shit insane mindset", and is the primary reason I voted for Kerry in 2004.
Curses! It looks as if K. Signal Eingang wins this one, and just when I was really getting into piling-on too!
I hope you're happy K.S.E. You...you...legal definitionist!
@KSE: While I continue to agree with Bruce, your point is made, and I cheerfully cede the argument.
Bruce, you're wrong again on this one, and Fritz and eddie and KSE and others are right.
"Terroristic threat" is an old legal term having nothing to do with modern notions of Al Qaeda and so on. I heard it used in the 70s, 80s and 90s in Texas, and a mouthy teen I knew spent a couple of weeks in the Marin County, California county jail for it around 1998. (That last was an overreaction by a DA who was up for re-election and wanted to seem tough on crime, but that's another story.)
Unfortunately, the more recent political use of the word "terrorism" has overshadowed that original, specific use as legal jargon, just as "hacker" has mutated in a direction I don't appreciate.
But I think there are much better uses for all of our time than beating this particular dead horse yet again.
Great point about the cheapening of the word terrorist. How about when the Maryland State Police put two Dominican nuns Sr. Ardeth Platte, 72, and Sr. Carol Gilbert, 61 in a terror database? They were labelled terrorists. This sort of thing is happening all over the country. The term terrorist is being misused courtesy of the USA Patriot Act on US citizens opposed to certain political policies.
I agree that terror is over-used in many instances, but stop getting on filing charges for terror in normal criminal circumstances. Its a legal term of art, and has been on the books for decades at least.
I did a search for the word terror in my state (KS). Found three:
Chapter 44.--LABOR AND INDUSTRIES
Article 7.--EMPLOYMENT SECURITY LAW
(4) engaging in mental abuse, which includes threats, intimidation and acts designed to induce terror;
Chapter 75.--STATE DEPARTMENTS; PUBLIC OFFICERS AND EMPLOYEES
Article 4.--SECRETARY OF STATE
(4) engaging in mental abuse, which includes threats, intimidation and acts designed to induce terror;
Chapter 21.--CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS
PART II.--PROHIBITED CONDUCT
Article 34.--CRIMES AGAINST PERSONS
(1) Commit violence communicated with intent to terrorize another, or to cause the evacuation of any building, place of assembly or facility of transportation, or in reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or evacuation;
Only the last is remotely like blowing-up-buildings "terror," and if I read the history file right, it dates from 1969.
If anything, I like this use of terror better. Now, I guess, we need a "mass-terror" definition, that is only used appropriately.
I dunno, the guy on the bike would have been terrified ;-)
Let's cut Bruce some slack... OK, so he was not trained as a lawyer and he does not know the history of this particular phrase. (As a former North Carolina prosecutor, I cringed when I read this post, knowing what the comments were going to be like.) But let's give Bruce a break... he has a consistent record of sharing useful information and meaningful insights which, if followed, would not only protect out civil liberties but keep us SAFER at the same time. In my book he has more than earned the right to an occasional small mistake without being totally dumped on. :-)
"But I think there are much better uses for all of our time than beating this particular dead horse yet again."
There are two sides to this issue,
1, Public Perception of a word or term.
2, Usage of a word or term (correct/incorrect)
That is in the public eye the word "Terror" has more than one meaning, one is the generally accepted but ambiguous "state of mind" (ie to be in a state of terror) another is altogether more fluid and is to do with the perception of the word in a particular context.
Ordinarily this might be of academic interest only (in which case as with "hacker") it will be debated in certain circles and have little practical effect on the world use by the "average voter" of the "general populace" Ms/r R.J. Public.
However when it comes to justice it is no longer of just academic interest it has a very real effect on peoples lives.
When you add the "political imperative" to a legal situation it is no longer about real justice but "justice being seen to be done" and in most cases it is a zero sum game, for every winner there is assuredly a loser (usually one big loser and many inconsequential winners).
As you note,
"a mouthy teen I knew spent a couple of weeks in the Marin County, California county jail for it around 1998. (That last was an overreaction by a DA who was up for re-election and wanted to seem tough on crime, but that's another story.)"
From the little you say it would appear that somebody expressing an opinion (right or wrong) was in your view incorrectly jailed (ie the loser) by a DA with a "political imperative" (ie aiming to be the winner and hopefully get to keep their job).
However I suspect that the "mouthy teen" lost by a lot more than two weeks in jail, I suspect it can be shown that their whole life was changed for the worse from that point onwards.
There are two things you can do about this sort of injustice to stop it re-occuring,
1, Change the system.
2, Change the public perception.
The first would be the best (ie remove the "political imperative") however with an entrenched process you may well be arguing about it still, when the next ice age claims a globaly warmed world.
The second method effectively spikes the guns of the "political imperative". If you point out that what a person is doing is political manipulation of the public perception for long enough the public finally wake up and get it (hopefully before the need for fridges expires).
However in the mean time the small percentage of the population that are more perceptive than "average voting" members of the public get fed up with hearing it and sometimes incorrectly assume that it is a waste of time arguing the point.
Sometimes it's the "volume" in quantity not decibels that wins an argument.
I'm just waiting until the day someone is accused of terrorism for producing a horror movie.
Based on some of the definitions I've seen...
I think that is a fantastic idea! Especially if we can make "terror" yet another euphemism (Hey baby, wanna get up to some heavy terror?), then the "War on Terror" seems even more stuffy!
Better watch it Bruce. That there sounds like terrorist talk...
We have this in the UK as well. You are a terrorist if you:
1) Take a photograph of a police officer
2) Take a photograph of a public building
3) Forge an ID certificate
there are lots more - but the Police see using anti-terror legislation easy to get a conviction than any other legislation. The degree of proof needed is lower and the penalties higher.
Best so far - Police car pulls up out side three kids, sitting on a wall chatting. The youngest was nine. He was searched under anti-terror legislation.
The world has gone mad.
It's true that this is a silly bit of terminology, but that's the way criminal law works.
Someone gets arrested, and of course they find the criminal statute with the most severe penalty that is also the most likely to succeed in court based on the technical definition of the crime.
So in this case, the fault is not that of the police or the prosecutor, but of some idiot legislators who defined "terroristic threats" too loosely.
Actually the real crime is whoever came up with the word "terroristic." Whoever that was should be waterboarded until they recant.
I have the answer - lets start doing the same "BigBrother speak" on other words - like lets call a nuclear bomb an incendiary device... or maybe the other way around.
I first heard the stupidity of all this while filming some guy getting arrested under making a terrorist threat for yelling at his wife. True story.
@ Adrian Challinor;
"... there are lots more - but the Police see using anti-terror legislation easy to get a conviction than any other legislation. The degree of proof needed is lower and the penalties higher."
You forgot to mention,
4, Write Poetry.
Seriously the UK Terrorism Act 2000 (TA2000) is really a "Police State Charter" when used with RIPA and ECA it gives completely unjustified powers to every tin pot "jobs worth".
When tied with databases it makes the dreams of previous despots all to easy. Which history has warned us about.
As Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal et Duc de Richelieu is reputed to have observed,
"If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I would find something in them to have him hanged."
(A quote Bruce has been known to use on the odd occasion http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7897892.stm ;)
Richelieu was known to his family as "Le Petit Rascal" and to many others "Un Bâtard Magnifique" (although I gather the Huguenots shortened it by neglecting the magnifique), which gives an insight into his character.
Richelieu is also known by the sobriquet l'Éminence rouge (the Red Eminence) from his Cardinals robes. Many think that he made Machiavelli look like a "mere player" although a staunch supporter of the Holy Roman Empire and the Pope and persecuted protestants in France he was more than happy to make alliances with protestants in other countries.
Amongst his other quotes appropriate for today's modern politico (and for Bruce ;),
"Secrecy is the first essential in affairs of state.",
"To mislead a rival, deception is permissible; one may use all means against his enemies."
"War is one of the scourges with which it has pleased God to afflict men."
And many others from his 1641 book “Maxims,” Testament Politique ( http://books.google.co.uk/books?... )
Oh and perhaps the most appropriate for the person of today,
“Never write a letter and never destroy one.”
Oh and in the final year of Richelieu's life Blaise Pascal invents the Pascaline - an automatic calculator that is arguably the fore runner of mechanical computers, which I guess means that some deity had a sense of humour ;)
To any still reading, as several have mentioned, "terroristic threatening" is a legal term present in many state and local statutes, which essentially extends to death threats, physically threatening someone, or convincing someone (falsely) that their life/body/property is danger.
In some jurisdictions, it can be as simple as "reckless disregard of the risk of causing terror or serious inconvenience."
False alarms can fall under a minor degree of terroristic threatening: "...intentionally makes false statements for the purpose of causing evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation."
"Seems like a normal threat to me. Or assault, with intent to do bodily harm. What's wrong with those criminal statutes?"
Aside from everyone pointing out that 'terroristic threats > terrorism', which has been brought up on this blog before.
I think there's a difference between someone yelling "I'm going to hurt you" and someone yelling "I'm going to hurt you" while they're brandishing a weapon. Trucks and axes, when used as weapons, are pretty terrifying. Maybe I'm biased because I'm a cyclist, but I'm ok with someone using a truck or an axe to scare the shit out of someone else being charged with 'uttering terroristic threats'.
It's just a good thing there was a witness, or the cyclist would have been charged with aggravated assault for pushing the driver. Seriously.
Agree, we've totally raped that word.
(to use the language of today's youth)
Interesting comments by lawyers.
One of the funny things about security thinking is that it's very here and now, if not about the future. Legal interpretations almost always seem to come across as entirely historical or at least pinned down by precedent.
So when Bruce gives his opinion broadly on how "terrorism" should be used to manage security resources, and lawyers point out a narrow interpretation and how it has been and why for prosecutions, the two arguments seem to miss each other entirely.
@Brianary: Wait, has anyone actually *defined* terrorism legally or specifically?
Yup, many different someones in many different ways, including the Federal government.
I found this discussion interesting albeit repetitive. I am a lawyer and I'd never encountered "terroristic threat" before. Makes me wonder about the legal-linguistic history of the term. Must remember to check Black's Legal Dictionary tonight.
While the discussion so far is interesting, there's another possible motivation here. In the US, Homeland Security (and other government agencies) are giving out money to local authorities to fight terrorists and terrorism (that should probably be in quotes, but I don't have a reference). I'd bet that local agencies have quickly figured out that one way to get those bucks is by having the word "terror" appear in their lists of crimes committed in their jurisdictions over the past year. And appear more often than in the past.
Upgrading the crimes to "terror" related (or "terroristic") may have a positive monetary impact on their ability to fight regular crimes...
Semantics Yes, Terrorism? Uhm...not really.
Attempted Murder? Well, a reasonable person could infer that running someone down with a motor vehicle or striking said individual with an axe could likely result in death or serious bodily injury. The DA picked the charge that was most likely to stick because the statute is weak.
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