Sometimes there is a news story so outrageous that I can’t help but sound off about it. The most recent of these concerns the indictment of fifteen people in Georgia on charges of terrorism. What did they do? When I hear of a charge that severe, a charge that carries up to twenty years if convicted, I think of certain activities that are horrendous, unspeakable, activities that take lives or attempt to do so.
I think about all of those horrific images we associate with terrorism: explosions, blood, smoke and carnage. I think about the Middle East and northern Africa, the IRA and Al-Qaeda. I think about extremists and ideologies, threats and coercions. I think about all of these things because they are traditionally synonymous with terrorism.
Terrorism is an attempt by its perpetrator to instill terror into its victims. As we all know all too well, there are those who will stop at nothing to do so.
What I do not think about when I hear the word terrorism is waving a confederate flag and getting into an altercation as a result. But these are apparently now activities that will get one brought up on charges of terrorism. This deeply concerns me. And for anyone who values liberty, it should concern you too.
Before I go any further let me make clear that I do not fly a confederate flag. I have no interest whatsoever in doing so. That said, I do think the history of the confederate flag is much more complex than the simple and naive perception that it represents racism and nothing else. However, the issue at hand has nothing to do with the confederate flag. It has everything to do with the First Amendment.
The details of the story are still in question. The group, Respect the Flag, claims they were swarmed by African-american party-goers who threw rocks and threatened them with weapons. The party-goers claimed that the flag-flyers parked nearby and began making threats and yelling racial slurs.
Okay. Let’s see here. If there were only insults hurled from either side, that is not terrorism. If there were actual threats made, that is still not terrorism. Even if there was physical abuse, that is not terrorism. The latter is called assault and charges should be made accordingly.
The members of the flag-flyers were accused of “criminal gang activity” and charged with making “terroristic threats” against the party-goers. By that standard I guess we can expect people involved in inner-city gang violence to be arrested and charged with terrorism in the future? Probably not.
The definition of terrorism is: the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims. As with any law we have to look at its intent, not search for ways to stretch and distort said law to encompass any action or activity that might conceivably be twisted to fit the definition. If all of a sudden flying a confederate flag is terrorism, where does it stop? What other flags or symbols or emblems will be banned? And do we then make “racist” comments an act of terrorism?
The First Amendment protects all speech, even the speech you or I may not like. Unless the prosecutor in this upcoming case can prove that the intent of the Respect the Flag members in question was to promote a political ideology through violent means, it is not terrorism. Even then, we have to be extremely careful in distinguishing between run-of-the-mill criminal threats versus actual terrorism. The line is not thin. It is dangerous to make it so.
When people are afraid to express their opinion because of possible reprisals, the First Amendment is in jeopardy. You must protect the rights of everyone to express their views or you will eventually lose your right to speak freely. Am I being too severe in my appraisal? No, because the threat to individual liberty historically always starts small. Now I don’t consider this recent episode a “small” matter, but I am aware that others might feel the severe charges are appropriate.
In larger context, consider the parallel rights along with speech contained in the First Amendment: religious liberty and freedom of the press. As a conservative, evangelical Christian I am all too aware that beliefs I hold dearly and proclaim openly are certainly “offensive” to some people. If I don’t defend the rights of someone to wave a particular flag and express a particular opinion (even when I do not agree), then I will eventually find statements I make also forbidden. I might be called “hateful” because something in a sermon I preach is unpalatable to a certain group of people. Suddenly, a charge of terrorism is bandied about because some special interest group or federal judge is offended.
Too far fetched? Not at all. Both Hitler and Stalin used “anti-terrorism” laws to arrest their political enemies and to suppress freedom of speech, religion and the press. This could never happen in America? Look around. Maybe it already is…