On July 27th, Donald Trump tweeted that the administration was considering designating the violent, anti-fascist group, known as Antifa, as a “major Organization of Terror.” Such a designation, as Trump pointed out, “would make it easier for police to do their job.” But does Antifa qualify as a terrorist organization?
What Makes a Terrorist
Since the passing of the USA PATRIOT Act in 2001, the definition of “terrorist” has become far broader, including criteria for “domestic terrorism,” which allows for greater inquiry and investigation by the federal government. The definition itself does not appear to have any gross differences from “International Terrorism:”
A person engages in domestic terrorism if they do an act “dangerous to human life” that is a violation of the criminal laws of a state or the United States, if the act appears to be intended to: (i) intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.
Antifa’s recent activities, which include vicious assault and battery of unarmed civilians in public spaces, typically within the context of demonstrations and counter-protests, certainly seem to fall within the first two criteria. As a militant, left-wing group, Antifa members have taken part in actions “dangerous to human life.” These actions, based on the group’s rhetoric, do appear to be intended for “intimidating or coercing a civilian populace” or “influencing the policy of a government.” Still, this definition seems to be lacking.
One of Antifa’s primary characteristics is its lack of organizational structure. There does not appear to be a central leadership or command structure, but rather a loosely associated grouping of individuals around the United States, who have co-opted the name “Antifa” for their own purposes. The only real similarities between these groupings is a zealous dislike of Donald Trump and a willingness to assault those who appear to support the president. It is nothing more than brand-named opportunism.
Consider other groups designated as “Domestic Terrorists.” The Ku Klux Klan, which has operated in some form since the Civil War, has had a notably strong structure until recent years. Official memberships and chapters around the country, with central leadership in the likes of David Duke, made the Klan far more powerful and dangerous, between official operations and splinter cell actions. Aryan Nations has existed since the early 70s, with primary leadership and structure, to the point that it hosted a World Congress of Aryan Nations. This kind of structure and relative cohesiveness does not seem to exist within Antifa.
Broad Definitions are Dangerous
Without heavy evidence of structure and purpose, the authorization of investigations into loosely tied groups can lead to a significant crisis of civil liberties, including civil asset forfeiture. Given the federal government’s heavy-handedness when it comes to domestic issues, the prospect of further federal resources being dispatched to local law enforcement could lead to the further militarization of police forces and an escalation of force and aggression. In essence, it would set a precedent that could increase the seemingly limitless authority found under the War on Terror, bringing it home on a greater scale.
With Antifa being tied together primarily through Twitter, Facebook groups, and chat rooms, declaring it as a terrorist organization could extend investigations to those who merely participate in online chatter. Thanks to the USA PATRIOT Act and subsequent legislation, everything is on the table, from educational and banking records to property through easily obtained search warrants. The precedent of declaring arbitrary groups of people, albeit violent groups, as terrorists, exposes many more Americans to inquiries that could have severe ramifications in their personal and public lives. Exactly the sort of thing that the Bill of Rights was designed to prevent.
The New McCarthyism
The battle between security and civil liberties is always fought on a razor’s edge, but we must force ourselves to err on the side caution, i.e. civil liberties. Antifa’s loose groupings have shown that they are willingly violent, and their intended targets seem arbitrarily chosen. But to label them as “Domestic Terrorists” is heavy-handed at best and extraordinarily dangerous at worst.
Violence outside of self-defense is unjustifiable and is a crime. But, like most crime, it is a local matter that must be left to local law enforcement. For the federal government to insert itself into such matters is a gross overreach of authority and continues the pattern of the nationalization of law enforcement and puts everyone at further risk.
As someone who is frequently critical of the government, politics, and public policy, such broad designations are extremely concerning. It is equating loose associations to complicity in criminal acts, which hardly holds up under the scrutiny of Due Process. But this is one result of many from party politics and an unchecked government; when it becomes difficult to find true criminals, everyone becomes a suspect. And the War on Terror becomes the new McCarthyism.