The deadly car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, has led some prominent politicians and former federal officials to label the assault an act of domestic terrorism. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) tweeted that the killing was "domestic terrorism" and urged President Donald Trump to "call evil by its name"; former Attorney General Eric Holder declared that had "ISIS rammed a car into a crowd this would be labeled quickly."
That's true: It would. But after 16 years of a war on terror that has eroded civil liberties, we should be trying to roll back the broad use of the term terrorism to describe any sort of ideologically motivated violence, not expanding it.
Holder was sometimes more appropriately cautious when he was actually attorney general, resisting calls to label various criminal acts terrorism before an investigation could even be started. Most prominently, the Department of Justice's approach to the Fort Hood shooting was criticized by those who wanted it labeled a terrorist attack.
The FBI has specific legal criteria it uses to define international terrorism, domestic terrorism, and the federal crime of terrorism. To be terrorist, an act must appear to intend to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping." The federal offense is defined as a criminal act "calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct."
In political rhetoric, by contrast, the word is frequently deployed as a thought-terminating cliché—a way to promote the idea that some military or police activity should be permitted to occur outside of the constraints of the Constitution, particularly against certain classes of people. In the last few decades, and particularly since 9/11, those classes of people have tended to be Muslim.
Republicans have made a lot of hay about Democrats refusing to "name the enemy" in the war on terror, but this misses the point spectacularly, conflating rhetoric and word choice with the policies they are meant to prop up.
Similarly, when word spread earlier this year that the Trump administration might rename the federal government's Countering Violent Extremism program to something like "Countering Radical Islamic Extremism," some on the left complained that this represented a victory for far-right extremists. Those critiques ignored the more salient point—that the program was ineffective, for much the same reason many counter-terrorism initiatives are. It aims its fire at "radicalization," leading to a kind of soft surveillance that former FBI agent Michael German told Reason's Jesse Walker was "intended to suppress ideas, which is likely to cause more problems than solve them. It encourages the identification, reporting, and 'treatment' of people with bad ideas, which will only lead to misuse of security resources and deprivation of civil liberties."
It's hard to understand the kind of person that would look at the extent of failures in the "war on terror"—a loss of civil liberties, a proliferation of terrorist safe havens around the world, and an increase in domestic "lone wolf" attacks, all at a great cost in blood and treasure—and decide that what America needs is a broader definition of the term. Since 2001 the militarization of domestic police has been accelerated. Constitutionally dubious law enforcement tools like the ones packaged in the PATRIOT Act have been systematically abused far beyond their originally declared scope. Drones have blurred the rules of war. The U.S. regularly launches "signature strikes," where the exact identity of the targets is unclear to the officials ordering the strikes. The U.S. has targeted and killed American citizens overseas without so much as indicting them in a federal court. This is the wages of terror.
As Glenn Greenwald noted after the Charleston shooting, the refusal by many politicians and pundits to call the attack "terrorism" revealed that the term was ultimately meaningless propaganda. (Holder did call the attack an act of domestic terrorism, but its perpetrator, white supremacist Dylan Roof, ultimately faced different charges.) Greenwald argued the term could be applied to the shooting, but he was not out "to seek an expansion of the term 'terrorism' beyond its current application" or the abuses and manipulations the term enables. "But what I also don't want," he wrote, "is for non-Muslims to rest in their privileged nest, satisfied that the term and its accompanying abuses is only for that marginalized group."
He has a point. So let's be more reluctant to use it in either case.
At the beginning of his term as attorney general, Holder sought to treat terrorism as a law enforcement issue. This was the right instinct. Terrorists are criminals with political ideas, but they are still criminals. The term terrorism is used to strip those criminals—and many noncriminals—of longstanding legal protections. And its ultimate effect has been to make it politically harder to defend the idea of treating "terrorism" as a law enforcement issue, often while creating the space for even more terrorism.