On Tuesday, a 15-year-old student at Oxford High School opened fire in the Michigan school's hallways. Within minutes of the first 911 call, the shooter, Ethan Crumbley, was in custody. Four students were killed. Another six students and one teacher were injured.
On Wednesday, Crumbley was charged as an adult with 24 counts, including four charges of first-degree murder and seven charges of assault with intent to murder. Those charges are certainly appropriate. But another—"terrorism causing death"—is cause for concern.
The definition of terrorism is not without controversy. For most people, the term evinces images of the September 11 attacks or suicide bombings, and indeed, Michigan's anti-terrorism law went into effect just months after 9/11. It defines the act as a "violent felony…that the person knows or has reason to know is dangerous to human life…intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population or influence or affect the conduct of government or a unit of government through intimidation or coercion." The FBI uses a similar definition.
Does that apply here? Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald explained in a Wednesday press conference that while the 11 people killed and injured were covered by the murder and attempted murder charges, "what about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can't eat, and can't sleep, and can't imagine a world where they could ever set foot back in that school? Those are victims too, and so are their families, and so is the community, and the charge of terrorism reflects that." Later, Sheriff Michael Bouchard indicated that the police had yet to determine a motive.
Without an explicit intent to intimidate a civilian population or effect political change, the Michigan statute seems not to apply. And if there is currently no obvious motive, then applying the charge seems like overreach.
In Michigan, first-degree murder carries a penalty of life in prison without parole, as does assault with intent to murder. If convicted on even one of those 11 charges, Crumbley will never leave prison. So it's not as though they need to tack on the charge to ensure that the shooter is severely punished.
There is, unfortunately, a broad trend underway of anti-terror mission creep. More and more often, prosecutors bring "terrorism" charges while fewer and fewer of the acts involved resemble the way the term is typically defined. Meanwhile, as the anti-terror mentality seeps further and further into everyday usage, it justifies further expansions of spying and surveillance at the expense of individual liberty, whether at a national or a local level.
Just as the punishment should fit the crime, the charge should fit the crime as well. And even when a crime is especially appalling, prosecutors should not tack on unnecessary charges that could contribute to the erosion of other people's liberties.