With the mass filing of “domestic terrorism” charges against 42 Stop Cop City protesters, the state compounds the violence of the Cop City project itself: a massive 85-acre police training facility; to be built atop one of the “four lungs” of Atlanta, the forest known by the colonized Muscogee people as the Weelaunee; in a city that already boasts the most concentrated surveillance in the country, as well as “dozens” of backlogged cases of police brutality; including the fatal shooting of Stop Cop City environmental activist Tortuguita while they were sitting with their hands up, judging from an independent autopsy.
The absurdity of the terrorism charges, based on the accused having “mud on their shoes” and a legal aid hotline number on their arms, reflects the absurdity of the U.S.’s “war on terror” as a whole. In this “war,” the criteria generally proffered to define its central term, terrorism, as a legal category — that it involves (1) exceptionally indiscriminate violence, (2) against civilians, (3) committed by ideologically motivated “radicals,” (4) to terrorize the public, therefore (5) necessitating an exceptional response — bear no correspondence to its application in reality.
Violence vs. Non-Violence
Contrary to dominant representations, the primary function of “anti-terrorism” is not the penalization of violence, but of acts with no necessary relationship to violence at all.
Fifty-four percent of U.S. terrorism prosecutions since 2001 have been for purported “material support”: for example, letting an acquaintance store a suitcase of socks and ponchos in one’s apartment (sentence: 15 years); releasing, as a civil rights lawyer, a public statement from a client imprisoned for terrorism (sentence: 10 years); and smuggling cigarettes (sentence: 30 years, reduced on appeal from 155 years).
Even being legally deemed “not a terrorist” is no bar to being criminalized as a terrorist. Sabri Benkahla, for instance, was given a 10 year “enhanced” terrorism sentence, despite the judge’s own finding that none of his actions had in fact “directly involved or intended to promote a federal crime of terrorism.” This was following a trial in which even Arabic words such as salaam, meaning “peace,” were classified as terminology “connected to radical Islam.”
Punishment vs. “Prevention”
Due to the pervasiveness of the presumption of guilt, the ambit of criminalization extends easily to punishing people for crimes they haven’t even yet managed to commit. Seventy percent of all U.S. terrorism convictions since 2001 have been “preemptive prosecutions” and another 23 percent partially preemptive, as determined by a comprehensive 2019 analysis by the Coalition for Civil Freedoms and Project SALAM.
For example, Rezwan Ferdaus was ensnared by an entrapment “security” operation while experiencing psychiatric and physical disabilities, including seizures, hallucinations, depression, and loss of bladder control so severe he was required to wear diapers, as Human Rights Watch has documented. He was sentenced to 17 years for an FBI-concocted bomb plot: over three times longer than was Thaddeus Murphy for actually bombing an NAACP office (on his own initiative), while mosque firebomber Cody Seth Crawford received no prison sentence at all.
Individual vs. Collective “Guilt”
Thus continues the use of the criminal law to punish the disenfranchised, the demonized and the dispossessed — not for what they’ve done, but for who they are.
Terrorism trials of Muslims have frequently featured the graphic airing of “inflammatory evidence about [incidents of] terrorism in which defendants played no part,” as Human Rights Watch notes. This is a practice of collective inculpation that U.S. judges have acknowledged would be unacceptably unfair if applied to any other type of offence.
Similarly, activists like Joshua Harper of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign have been convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” not for their own actions, but the “illegal” tactics imputed to others. The minor detail that “Harper’s personal conduct [did] not cross the line of illegality,” as the court itself admitted, was no impediment.
Incredibly, it is the Stop Cop City forest defenders with mud on their shoes — not the cops with blood on their hands — who are charged with terrorist guilt by association: a predictable result when the primary source of terror defines, investigates, and prosecutes the crime.
Dangerous Actions vs. Ideologies
And so, under U.S. legal frameworks, animal rights activists freeing minks from mass suffering and slaughter in fur farms are “terrorists”; but white-supremacist vigilantes holding hundreds of migrants hostage at gunpoint are not.
Donating humanitarian aid to besieged Gaza is “terrorism;” while donating to arm Israeli settlers is an act of “charity,” subsidized by the state.
Making a 5-minute-long YouTube video depicting American military atrocities and militating against India’s occupation of Kashmir is “terrorism;” unlike KKK cross burnings and advocacy for lynchings, which are constitutionally protected “free speech.”
Accidentally dropping glitter at an environmental protest is charged as a “terrorism” offence; mowing over anti-racist protesters, though, is not only not “terrorism” but in many states now pardonable or protected by specially passed laws.
Cutting down genetically engineered trees to protest environmentally destructive government experiments is “terrorism;” razing a forest to construct Cop City is not. Going to a music festival to stop Cop City, on the other hand, might be “terrorism;” whereas storming the Capitol with Confederate flags and nooses is not.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s own Inspector General has criticized the FBI for “investigat[ing] acts of nonviolent civil disobedience [by anti-war and environmentalist groups] as Acts of Terrorism” — part of a global pattern wherein 58 percent of prosecutions of human rights defenders around the world are pursued under anti-terrorism measures, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights.
Stop Cop City is the first, and so far, only target of Georgia’s anti-terrorism statute, enacted in the wake of Dylann Roof’s 2015 anti-Black church massacre; while Roof himself and 87 percent of others federally prosecuted for right-wing violence have been spared any terrorism charge.
Harm to Public vs. Corporate Interests
The criminalization of police abolitionists, animal liberationists, and pipeline “arsonists” as terrorists underwrites the ongoing torching and plunder of the planet for private gain. Sheltered under the aegis of “anti-terrorism,” corporate practices of extraction and exploitation continue to inflict indiscriminate casualties in the service of violent ideologies — the very definition, supposedly, of terrorist crime.
Climate justice activist Jessica Reznicek, for instance, was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment as a terrorist for damaging the weapon of mass climate destruction known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline itself, meanwhile, poisons stolen Indigenous land, water and air with impunity, having leaked five times in its first six months of operation alone. Nationally, approximately 6,000 “pipeline incidents” reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation have caused 1,085 injuries and 257 fatalities since 2003; globally, research from Harvard, University College London, Birmingham and Leicester universities indicates that fossil fuel pollution is responsible for more than 8 million deaths per year.
In previous colonial eras, too, it was the enslaved and the colonized who were labelled “terrorists” for the offence of resisting their domination, while plantation masters and colonizers were treated as the victims of “terrorism,” i.e. efforts to emancipate stolen lives and land. Then as now, ruthlessly suppressing the “terrorisms” of the marginalized and oppressed permits the large-scale terrors of the powerful to proceed unchecked.
Targeting Civilians vs. Military
Within this inverted reality, even occupying armies become the innocent sufferers of the “terrorism” of the occupied.
Palestinians are sued under U.S. anti-terrorism statutes for nonviolently challenging Israel’s military occupation; while the atrocities intrinsic to the occupation itself are legally shielded in U.S. courts by Israel’s “sovereign immunity.”
The U.S. indicts “terrorist” states and individuals for targeting or even just planning to target U.S. soldiers; yet the U.S.’s own prolific torture and killings of civilians are perpetually written off: pushed under the carpet as “collateral damage,” paid off with paltry “condolence” funds, or pinned on “the terrorists” themselves for leaving all those children and elders in the way of U.S. bombs.
Aafia Siddiqui is currently serving an 86-year terrorism sentence for allegedly attempting to shoot a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan — even though she was the only one who was actually shot. In contrast, Derrick Miller was released after eight years for shooting a captive Afghan civilian in the head and dumping the body in a latrine; he is currently a legislative assistant to Florida Congressperson Matt Gaetz.
Exception vs. Norm
Far from being a temporary and exceptional aberration, the abuses executed in the name of fighting terrorism are in fact institutionalized as the norm.
Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib imported both torturers and torture methods — beatings, forced feedings, forced nudity, sexual humiliation, electrocution, prolonged isolation, exposure to extreme light and temperature conditions, sleep and sensory deprivation, starvation, attack dog brutalization, and various other techniques of “psychic demolition” — from the “normal” U.S. prison system.
U.S. prisons, conversely, have been “Guantanamized” — for example, with the development of regimes such as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), in which the imposition of total isolation serves the dual function of tormenting prisoners and simultaneously screening off the abuse from external scrutiny. The torture and its cover-up in one! In the words of a report by Yale Law School and the Centre for Constitutional Rights, SAMs “shrink the entirety of the prisoner’s world to the four corners of his prison cell” while “shielding this extreme use of government power from public view”: in some ways even more repressive than Gitmo 1.0.
War Plus Police
The net effect of all the above is to create populations of people who are subject to virtually unlimited “legalized” violence — whether by police shootings or drone bombings — but are prohibited from using violence or even nonviolence in return.
Instead of repairing the resultingly devastated communities, police and militaries construct their own “mock” versions — like the one planned for Cop City — where they can train in further terrorizing the inhabitants, from Atlantans to Afghans. The U.S. military’s practice “war on terror” on faux-cities like “Braggistan” and “Talatha,” for example, come complete with such “authentic” features as mosques, donkeys, the call to prayer, and household furniture inscribed with the word “jihad” (which literally refers to primarily nonviolent “struggle” — just as menacing as salaam).
The terms commonly used to describe these exercises in enforcing the ruling hierarchy — “war” for what happens outside the borders, “policing” for within — are euphemisms that work to obscure, partition and sanitize the reality. For “police,” in theory, lethal force is meant to be a last resort against civilians, who may not legitimately use force themselves. In “war,” combatant targets may legally be killed, but are entitled to fire back. Here, however, the logics of war and police are selectively combined, to achieve maximum application of unilateral brutality with minimum restraints and accountability. As in the colonial killing fields and torture chambers of previous decades, colonial powers’ claimed “right” to dominate, expropriate and annihilate has always been a one-way street.
With Cop City, the problem is yet again laid bare, but so too is the solution: an abolitionist struggle that is as interconnected as the forms of state-corporate terror we confront — the colonial-carceral-counterterrorism-military-industrial complex.
If this struggle is now called “terrorism,” then let us all be “terrorists” too.
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