Apolitical Terrorism


Is John Lee Malvo, who was indicted yesterday on capital murder charges, guilty of terrorism? Under Virginia's terrorism statute, passed in response to the September 11 attacks, he probably is. The law defines terrorism as a crime committed with the "intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence the policy, conduct or activities of the government through intimidation or coercion." Although there's no evidence that the D.C.-area sniper shootings were aimed at accomplishing a political goal, they certainly intimidated the public. But it's hard to believe that terror as an end in itself was what Virginia legislators had in mind when they passed this law, which is the only route by which Malvo is likely to get the death penalty. As critics have noted, the broad definition of terrorism suggested by a literal reading of the statute would cover any criminal who enjoys generating fear among his potential victims. If John Lee Malvo is a terrorist, so was Ted Bundy.


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  1. >>Why can’t murder just be murder?!? >Both are politically-motivated laws against actions that are already illegal.

  2. Now there are some stickey wickets in that law… the Raider’s example may be a weak one, but a broader problem here is interpreting what the murder’s intentions were. Any case that gets a lot of publicity may cause ‘fear and intimidation’ of the public, regardless of whether or not that was the murder’s intent.

    This is the same problem with hate crimes. If someone uses a racial slur while beating the crap out of you, that does not prove they are a racist, just that they want to maximize the pain and suffering they cause you. On the other hand, if someone is motivated to beat the crap out of you (or worse kill you), that seems pretty hateful, even if the hatred was not motivated by an ‘officially recognized’ prejudice. Overall, the ‘hate’ protion of hate crime laws really attempts to punish incorrect speech used in the commission of a crime.

    People have argued that crimes motivated by ‘hate’ are more hurtful, all other things being equal, than crimes motivated by other things. I think there is some truth to this. If I was Jewish and someone spraypainted a swastika on my house, it would probably upset me more than if someone painted ‘Tony was here’ or whatever. However I still think hate crime laws are redundant, because courts can and do take into account the circumstances of a crime in doling out the punishment. The ‘extenuating circumstances’ can increase as well as mitigate punishments.

  3. “influence the policy, conduct or activities of the government through intimidation or coercion.” would seem to include trying to extort $10 million from the government, as Muhammad and Malvo were trying to do.

  4. I’m all for any lawful avenue that helps a sociopath into that long final sleep.

    Do you live in or near Virginia Mr. Sullum? When I lived there they often managed to execute people for just plain muder

  5. Why can’t murder just be murder?!? Seems like that’s the worst thing you can do anyway. Except do it again. And again. And…

  6. Jacob, I doubt that Ted Bundy had any goal greater than making things go ‘splat.’

    But I suppose that’s the point, isn’t it?

    I take it, from your comments, that Virginia doesn’t allow the death penalty for “mere” murder?

    I’ll bet that folks who support an explicit law against terrorism (as opposed to, say, assault, murder, or extortion) are opponents of hate-crime legislation. Both are politically-motivated laws against actions that are already illegal.

  7. Here’s a website and some examples of why Malvo isn’t just your run-of-the-mill murderer. Curious if you think he’s guilty of terrorism after looking at these:


    Exhibit 65-006: A self-portrait of Malvo in the cross hairs of a gun scope shouting, “ALLAH AKBAR!” The word “SALAAM” scrawled vertically. A poem: “Many more will have to suffer. Many more will have to die. Don’t ask me why.”

    Exhibit 65-013: The word “INSHALLAH” above a portrait glorifying “Muammar Kaddafi” as “The Liberator” dressed in full military regalia.

    Exhibit 65-016: A portrait of Saddam Hussein with the words “INSHALLAH” and “The Protector,” surrounded by rockets labeled “chem” and “nuk” (sic).

    Exhibit 65-043: Father and son portrait of Malvo and Muhammad. “We will kill them all. Jihad.”

    Exhibit 65-056: A self-portrait of Malvo as sniper, lying in wait, with his rifle. “JIHAD” written in bold letters.

    Exhibit 65-057: A drawing of the Twin Towers burning with a plane flying toward the buildings. Captions: “JIHAD ISLAM UNITE RISE!” along with “America did this” and “You were warned.” Portrait of Malvo as sniper labeled “Believer” and portrait of Osama bin Laden labeled “prophet.” A poem: “Our minarets are our bayonets, Our mosques are our baracks (sic), Our believers are our soldiers.” The American flag and the Star of David drawn in cross hairs.

    Exhibit 65-067: A suicide bomber labeled “Hamas” walking into a McDonald’s restaurant. Another drawing of the Twin Towers burning captioned: “85 percent chance Zionists did this.” More scrawls: “ALLAH AKBAR,” “JIHAD” and “Islam will explode.”

    Exhibit 65-103: A lion accompanies chapter and verse from the Koran (“Sura 2:190”): “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you and slay them wherever ye catch them.”

    Exhibit 65-109: Portrait of Osama bin Laden, captioned “Servant of Allah.”

    Exhibit 65-117: The White House drawn in cross hairs, surrounded by missiles, with a warning: “Sep. 11 we will ensure will look like a picnic to you” and “you will bleed to death little by little.”

    Exhibit 65-133: Reference to “Islamic counter attack force . . . ICAF.”

    Exhibit 65-114: Self-portrait of Malvo as sniper. Rant says “they all died and they all deserved it.”

    Exhibit 65-101: Malvo’s thought for the day: “Islam the only true guidance, the way of peace.”

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