For many college students, there is no clear indicator for what defines terrorism. This is common for many in the United States, since there is no clear indicator for what actions or affiliations may be considered terrorism. Neither the United States government nor the legal system has a universal agreement on the definitions of terrorism, with many agencies and departments using different definitions. Although just a word, it holds a powerful connection to many Americans, often associated with the enemy organizations the United States has fought for decades, such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban.
The issue of defining what constitutes terrorism is the way the organizations work. Terrorist organizations do not usually have uniformed soldiers, opting for civilian-clothed militias, when carrying out attacks. The media has kept a general tradition of labeling acts of mass violence, serial murder, rioting, protesting, or specific attacks as terrorism only when it is linked to or motivated by terrorist organizations. However, the government has failed to keep this general rule by creating unconstitutional legislation and programs that target United States citizens’ civil liberties.
One way the government has failed to differentiate American citizens and terrorists is by eliminating Americans’ right to privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Patriot Act’s intrusive formalities were exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden released information about the PRISM surveillance program that operates under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). The PRISM program unconstitutionally bypassed Fourth Amendment protection, allowing the federal government direct access to technological data and communications through wiretaps from millions of Americans without warrant, cause, or reason. The FISC courts allowed for a direct link to companies’ servers to obtain stored information without reoccurring warrants. The National Security Agency collected billions of records a day to track the locations of mobile phone users. This data was stored in a vast database, using technology that can link previous data to show habits. The agency also stored metadata of millions, showing everything that the user does online, including browsing history, email activity, account details, and saved information. At a point in time, the NSA collected 1,826 petabytes of information per day, equivalent to over 13 years of HDTV video, according to tech website Gizmodo. The PRISM program was shut down when the Patriot Act was renewed, and renamed the USA Freedom Act, after backlash from Snowden’s released documents.
Many Americans have experienced the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) when traveling. Somehow the TSA’s procedures are perfectly “constitutional” since the search is part of a regulatory scheme, yet it clearly lacks the foundations for what should be allowed under the protections of the Fourth Amendment. Previous judicial decisions deemed it constitutional on the basis of security. The screening and procedures are extremely intrusive to many Americans. The procedures involve scanning your body structure and the contents of your bag(s), a pat-down of your entire body without reasonable suspicion, and possibly questioning if TSA agents find it necessary.
Many Americans may say, “Well, I have nothing to hide.” The government’s actions are not about what you may be hiding, but rather about three questions:
- Why were you no longer entitled to your constitutional rights?
- Should security trump your right to privacy?
- Why was the government viewing American citizens as possible combatants without any probable cause?
Another concern that can be seen publicly is the legislating of terrorism laws that contradict preconceived understandings. According to The Guardian, two environmental protestors were arrested on felonious terrorism hoax charges in Oklahoma for unfurling a banner and dropping glitter in an oil and gas company’s office. And in the past few weeks, Senator Doug Ericksen proposed a bill that would charge anti-Trump protestors with felonious “economic terrorism” charges. Individuals charged with economic terrorism could face five years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. It can target any protest group that is considered disruptive.
This type of classification poses the possibility of labeling American citizens with the exact same classification as the enemy the United States has been fighting for decades. There needs to be a clear distinction between the enemy we have been at war with for decades and the American citizens. By linking Americans in this way, terrorism is tied no longer to organizations or their influence, but rather to behaviors alone. The American people should be extremely concerned over this notion. Terrorism is evolving in a direction that allows for government to legislate laws that counteracts the Constitution of the United States. Lawmakers are not directly taking away your constitutional rights, but they are slowly dismantling them in a way that leaves only a shell of what those rights were meant to be.
This unclear distinction begs questioning of the future. American citizens have begun advocating that certain types of behaviors or acts can be considered terrorism, which is alarming. If protesters can be charged with terrorism, what other acts could be considered terrorism? How far will the government be willing to go in labeling acts as terrorism? Which Americans would be considered terrorists? How will the government differentiate United States citizens and the terrorists whom we have been at war with? If we lose our fundamental constitutional rights in the United States, has terrorism won?
I think the most important question is if Americans are willing to allow the government to move towards this direction.
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