Hyperbole is a constant temptation in debate, especially political debate. Since “terrorism” has now been made into a bogey-man (far out of proportion to any actual threat it poses in the United States) and used to channel anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry, accusing one’s political opponents of engaging in or supporting “terrorism” is an effective rhetorical trick. (The labels “Y’allQueda” and “YeeHahdists” being used to describe the perpetrators of the latest Oregon fracas reflects both the verbal cleverness and the anti-rural bigotry that characterize parts of the Blue team.)

Having myself fallen into that moral trap just this week, I want to take this opportunity to recant. No, the rag-tag army of narcissists and fantasts that has taken over the (seasonally empty) headquarters of the Mahheur National Wildlife Refuge is engaged in seditious conspiracy (which is good for 20 years in the federal pen), but not in “terrorism” by any reasonable definition.

Terrorism, before it became an all-purpose pejorative, described a very specific set of political strategies. The central point of terrorist action is, as the term suggests, not direct damage but fear. By making violent attacks directed at more or less random targets – classically, bombs planted in marketplaces and railroad stations, or attacks on isolated civilians – terrorist groups aim to weaken the states with which they contend in three ways: by demonstrating the state’s incapacity to protect the population, by damaging the capacity of that population to carry on normal social and economic activity, and by attracting heavy-handed responses from officials that would harm innocent bystanders and thus discredit the state’s legitimate authority. The patriot side in the American Revolution, Algerian rebels against French rule, the Viet Cong, and elements of the ANC in South Africa and the IRA in Northern Ireland all used terrorism with some success. Terrorist tactics can also be used by states to suppress insurgencies, and arguably the bombing of population centers is essentially a terrorist action; the bombings of Guernica, of Dresden, and of Hiroshima had much in common with the attacks of 9/11. That distinguishes terrorism from political assassination, which aims directly at the death of a specific target for tactical political advantage or revenge. Attacks on military and police forces are also a different phenomenon from pure terrorism. With that background, consider the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.  Yes, it seems probable that some of the occupiers hope to attract an over-the-top official response that will make them into martyrs. But otherwise their actions have little in common with terrorism in its primary meaning. They have certainly caused fear – Harney County has closed its schools for a week – but the goal is not to terrorize the local population. The willingness of some members of the group to kill as well as die has been proclaimed this time and was demonstrated in the Bundy Ranch confrontation, when they forced the federal government to back down by credibly threatening a massacre of federal law enforcement officers. But they’re not actually threatening civilians or raiding farmhouses. The randomness of true terrorist attacks makes them, in my view, morally horrible beyond the horror of ordinary violence, on a par with torture rather than simple murder. (I’m strongly inclined to say, with respect to terror as well as torture, that it is never morally licit. But even if you’re not willing to come that far with me, it seems obvious that killing random bystanders requires a different level of justification – if it can ever be justified – from killing soldiers.) So I’m sorry to have allowed myself, in the heat of the moment, to misuse the label “terrorist.”  As it happens, a similar misuse of language underlies some of the rage being played out in Oregon. The Hammonds (père et fils) face five-year mandatory minimum sentences for arson on federal land under a statute called the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA): specifically under Title VII of that act, headed “Criminal Law Modifications to Counter Terrorism.”

Whoever maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other personal or real property in whole or in part owned or possessed by, or leased to, the United States, or any department or agency thereof, shall be imprisoned for not less than 5 years and not more than 20 years, fined under this title, or both.

The rather hysterical heading of that Title helps justify the draconian mandatory sentence, but the crime as defined – and the crime as the Hammonds committed it – has precisely nothing “terroristic” about it. If we recall that the goal of the terrorist is to spread fear, the fundamental anti-terrorist strategy is precisely keeping calm and carrying on. Let’s not let our enemies -foreign or domestic – drive us crazy.

[Cross-posted The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.