When are Militias and Tea Party Members “Terrorists”?

by Will Potter on April 7, 2010

in Government Priorities


Tea Party poster.

Tea Party groups and right-wing militias have been plotting attacks on Muslims, throwing bricks through lawmakers’ windows, and issuing death threats, yet the mainstream press and the federal government have not labeled these acts “terrorism.”

By contrast, the “number one domestic terrorism threat,” according to the FBI, is the animal rights and environmental movements.

Here is a side-by-side comparison of three recent right-wing cases which have not been labeled terrorism, and how they compare to activist cases that have.

  • Militia member incites brick attacks on lawmakers’ offices. Mike Vanderboegh, former militia member from Alabama, urged readers of his blog to throw bricks through Democratic offices in response to health care legislation. “So, if you wish to send a message that Pelosi and her party [that they] cannot fail to hear, break their windows,” Vanderboegh wrote. “Break them NOW…” The call to action worked: in the week that followed at least 10 lawmakers had offices vandalized or received death threats.

    Six animal rights activists were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” for doing much less. They were part of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, and ran a website that posted personal information about executives tied to the controversial lab Huntingdon Life Sciences. They posted both news reports of both legal and illegal actions, and supported all of it. They also published essays about why they support non-violent direct action and sabotage. They were sentenced to between 1 and 6 years in prison. And the former militia member? He hasn’t even been arrested.

  • Plotting to attack Muslims and police, and use a weapon of mass destruction. The Christian militia group called Hutaree is shown in one of their promo videos here. According to The New York Times, the defendants were “part of a group of apocalyptic Christian militants who were plotting to kill law enforcement officers in hopes of inciting an antigovernment uprising, the latest in a recent surge in right-wing militia activity.”

    The New York Times doesn’t call this racist, political violence “terrorism.” Yet a group of environmentalists who sabotaged property as part of the Earth Liberation Front, without harming or intending to harm a single person, were smeared as terrorists immediately upon arrest. The Times used the word in the headline, throughout the story, and in all subsequent coverage.

  • Urging Tea Partiers to “reload.” Sarah Palin told a rally of 8,000 tea-partiers: “It’s not a time to retreat. It’s a time to reload.”

    Animal rights activists have been charged with terrorism for much less fiery speech. The AETA 4, for example, are not accused of property destruction or threats of violent. They are being charged under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act for protesting and chalking slogans on the streets using children’s sidewalk chalk.

    To be clear, I am not arguing that Palin’s comments should be labeled terrorism. But what do you think would happen if an animal rights activists or environmentalist made the same comment, but about animal researchers?

The word terrorism is inherently malleable. There is not one true meaning of the word, no universal criteria for its application. However, these dramatic disparities extend far, far beyond any natural difficulties in using the term fairly.

People are being singled out for selective prosecution because of their politics and their threat to corporate profits. Once convicted, they are then being singled out again; Daniel McGowan, one of the Earth Liberation Front defendants, is in a secretive experimental prison called a Communications Management Unit.

Meanwhile, groups that pose a much more serious threat to human life, and have a demonstrated history of violence, go untouched. If the word terrorism is rhetorically and legally applied to non-violent animal and environmental activists, it must also be applied to much more dangerous groups.

That being said, it is not enough for us to respond by saying “They’re terrorists too!” or “We’re not terrorists, they are!”

Clamoring to label others as terrorists misses the point, which is that the word, the most dangerous and powerful term in the media and in our legal system, is nothing more than a fluid brand to attack the enemy of the hour.

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