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Civil Rights And Public Safety: Defining Terrorism

Published: May 17, 2018

Since terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, “If you see something, say something” has been a widespread initiative to tip off officials to potential danger to society. Likewise, the “Know the Signs” initiative of Newtown’s Sandy Hook Promise educates the public on recognizing warning signs that can indicate acts of planned violence; “Say Something” encourages speaking up when verbal or social media or other signs point to a need for intervention.

But when does a verbal or written threat become a reason for arrest and prosecution? What is domestic terrorism, and how should it be addressed without infringing on a person’s civil rights?

These are questions that the Vermont legislation has struggled to define in recent weeks. Following the arrest in April of an 18-year-old man there, who had journaled of his desire to shoot up his old high school and who purchased a gun, lawmakers in that state are working to approve “a domestic terrorism measure intended to hold someone accountable for taking substantial steps to plot mass killing or destruction,” according to an April 24 article in the Burlington Free Press.

They are taking action, despite the Vermont Supreme Court’s ruling that the recent arrest did not show an attempted crime as defined by state law — only that the young man made preparations to commit a crime. The most serious charges in this case were dropped. Journaling horrific fantasies is not a crime; but threats shared verbally or on social media overstep the right to free speech, particularly when paired with weapons. When students and educators are traumatized, are they not victims of terrorism? Every state’s laws must protect from verifiable threats.

How safe Americans feel in public spaces, in schools, in religious institutions is a modern concern; violent intent lawfully defined can protect the public. If saying something results in no action to prevent violence, how long before voices are silent, fingers crossed?

Sandy Hook Promise notes that “research has revealed that in seven out of ten acts of gun violence, a friend(s) were told that an act of violence would be committed…in four out of five school shootings, the attacker had told people of his plans ahead of time.” This organization’s programs have helped intervene in various threats of violence since training was implemented in schools across the nation.

The Senate version of the Vermont law would outlaw possession of a dangerous weapon in conjunction with a violent intent. It would become a felony to possess a dangerous weapon with the intent to injure multiple persons, and it seems a reasonable law to implement.

We cannot say what laws any other state should or should not pass, but voices need to be backed up by enforceable laws. When suspicious behavior rears its head, loudly “Say Something.”

We know that Constitutional rights must be protected; and we also know that no American living in fear is truly free.

Know the Signs. Lives depend on it, no matter where you live.

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