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September 11 was terrorism. The NRA and antifa are not.

The lawmakers saying that are warping the meaning of the term to expand the power of the state and demonize political opponents — without making us any safer.
Image: Members of Antifa line up during an alt-right rally in Portland, Oregon
Members of Antifa line up during a rally in Portland, Oregon, on Aug. 17. The group might be odious, but it doesn't kill people.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

We hit peak absurdity last week when the San Francisco city government branded the NRA a “domestic terrorist organization.

In reaching its conclusion, the city’s Board of Supervisors argued, in part, that the NRA supports terrorism by making it easy for violent extremists to get guns. Now, the NRA — which has filed a lawsuit in response— is a lot of odious things, but it’s not a terrorist group, domestic or otherwise.

Advocating policies, even ones that harm society, does not make one a terrorist. Trust me, I know from terrorists. I used to be a military correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. I wrote about terrorists. I interviewed them face to face. And in January 2004, one terrorist — a suicide bomber — almost killed me when he exploded on the bus I was riding on.

Advocating policies, even ones that harm society, does not make one a terrorist. Trust me, I know from terrorists.

I still bear the scars from that day.

Though the precise definition is still debated by academics, a terrorist is a nonstate militant who targets civilians with deadly force to achieve a political objective. Innocence as defined by just war theory, which informs modern concepts of right and wrong in warfare, mean nothing to them. Terrorists make people fear for their lives.

So, yes, I wish San Francisco hadn’t cheapened the pro-gun-control argument with its rank hyperbole. I also wish the resolution was an isolated incident. But over the past couple of months, we’ve been seeing a revival in the reckless use of the term “terrorist” by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

In doing so, they are further warping the meaning of the word (which already got loosey-goosey under the Patriot Act and subsequent legislation) to expand the power of the state, demonize political opponents and raise serious constitutional issues — all while doing little to make American citizens safe.

Take the case of Portland. On June 29, during a confrontation between two opposing groups of protesters, a right-wing writer named Andy Ngo was set upon by antifa activists, who punched and kicked him and, as he walked away, doused him with milkshakes.

It was a reprehensible act and, no matter what one thinks of Ngo the man or his fanboy journalism, his attackers need to be punished. And, lo and behold, there are laws on the books to do just that. But they weren’t good enough for two Republican senators.

In response to Ngo being roughed up, Ted Cruz of Texas and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana quickly introduced a nonbinding resolution that called “for the groups and organizations across the country who act under the banner of antifa to be designated as domestic terrorist organizations.”

The attack on Ngo didn’t involve a hijacked plane, a café bombing or a synagogue shooting. It barely rose to the level of a barroom brawl. Yet here were two senators panting about antifa and domestic terrorism, exploiting a term associated with such national tragedies as 9/11 or the 2002 Bali bombings to go after a messy little protest movement our society is more than well-equipped to handle.

Worse still, the two were willing to run afoul of the Constitution in the process. There’s a reason why we don’t have an official list of domestic terrorist organizations like we do with foreign groups. It’s called the First Amendment. You can’t simply criminalize U.S. citizens for sharing the same symbols or banner as those who engage in violence.

Even if you could, it seems odd that the two senators would make targeting antifa by name a priority over, say, the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division or anti-government sovereign citizens movement. Both those groups are responsible for real, actual murders.

Besides the arbitrariness of it all, there’s another reason why you wouldn’t want to the lower the bar on domestic terrorism just to call out antifa: If you did, on what grounds could you criticize the Chinese for taking the same kind of repressive measures against their not-so-gentle protesters in Hong Kong?

Be that as it may, on Aug. 17, President Donald Trump tweeted in the lead-up to expected confrontations between far-right and far-left protesters again facing off in Portland, “Major consideration is being given to naming ANTIFA an ‘ORGANIZATION OF TERROR.’”

It was chillingly authoritarian. And ironic. After all, if merely roughing up political opponents is tantamount to terrorism, what does that say about Trump? While still a candidate back in 2016, he urged his supporters: "If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of them, would you? Seriously, OK? Just knock the hell ... I promise you I will pay for the legal fees. I promise, I promise.”

Wouldn’t that make Trump, like the antifa pugilists, a domestic terrorist?

The problem, however, goes beyond Cruz, Cassidy and Trump. In the wake of recent mass shootings, other lawmakers have put domestic terrorism bills before Congress. For example, the Domestic Terrorism Penalties Act of 2019, introduced in mid-August by Texas Reps. Michael McCaul and Randy Weber, both Republicans, and Democrat Henry Cuellar, establishes federal penalties for a new all-encompassing crime of domestic terrorism, instead of what we have now: circumstance-specific terrorism laws that address bombings, hijackings, etc.

According to the congressmen, our regular laws against violence and mayhem (plus 57 federal terrorism-related laws) are insufficient to address terrorists without links to foreign organizations who go on shooting sprees, and this bill will finally plug that hole.

I don’t buy it, and here’s why.

First, the bill is mostly symbolic. It’s good and right to call the El Paso shooter — who justified his murderous rampage in August as a response to “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” — a domestic terrorist. But public officials can label him that already; they don’t need a change of law. As for prosecution, there are enough existing laws to nail him. Case in point, the state is seeking the death penalty in the El Paso case. How much more can you punish him?

Second, if you want to federally prosecute shooters as domestic terrorists, just create a law that covers politically motivated violence with firearms. Simple. Why have a bill that considers assaults resulting in “serious bodily injury” as terrorism, when such an open-ended category could be used by an overzealous prosecutor against unpopular, low-rent scrappers?

Third, the bill describes politically motivated destruction of property as an act of domestic terrorism. Property! Think of the implications. By their logic, McCaul, Weber and Cuellar are saying the Boston Tea Party is an act of terrorism and the Sons of Liberty terrorists.

Other bills under consideration have similar flaws or worse: One by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., explicitly defines attacks on military personnel as “terrorism.” How exactly is that terrorism? Do we not train our own soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen to kill enemy military personnel?

By their logic, McCaul, Weber and Cuellar are saying the Boston Tea Party is an act of terrorism and the Sons of Liberty terrorists.

Now, it’s tempting to think that these bills are just meant as a distraction from doing the hard work on gun violence in America. But there are anti-gun liberals who support these legal efforts, too. I get it. People want to take a stand against white supremacist terrorism, especially after El Paso. The question is whether what’s gained by the extra bit of symbolism is worth the cost.

We are now seeing the word terrorist — the nuclear bomb of political epithets — being casually tossed about. For some, it’s just a matter of hurting people on the other side of the aisle. Others, operating in a less partisan fashion, aren’t thinking through all the consequences of pushing bills that list too many crimes as terrorism.

What if they all succeed? What sort of legal landscape would they craft? Get into a knock-down, drag-out fight over politics? Terrorist. Throw a brick through a bank window at a protest? Terrorist. Every rioter who ever existed? Terrorists.

And so on and so on, until you, me and Samuel Adams are all terrorists.