Any mass shooting is shocking. But there is something specific about the reverberations of horror that emanate from an apparently premeditated attack on a school by a gunman.
The prosecution of a Michigan teen, charged with killing four of his classmates and wounding six other students and a teacher, puts an accurate name on that trauma: terrorism.
It’s the correct way to think about, categorize, and charge the type of violence that, by its very design, victimizes those far beyond the scene of the crime. Few acts of mass violence are as inherently terroristic as those on schools, which serve not only as educational institutions but also as centers for community life. They are places where our youngest citizens, their families, and educators should always feel safe. And when that sense of surety is shattered, it’s an attack on us all.
Yet, neither federal law nor most state statutes treat acts of mass violence at schools, churches, concert venues, or other places where people peacefully gather as terrorism, at least when they aren’t committed by foreign nationals or organizations. There isn’t even a clear definition of domestic terror under federal law. This is despite the annual reminder by the FBI, in its threat assessment, that domestic terror is a major and growing threat to Americans.
Lawmakers in Washington, on Beacon Hill, and across the country need to catch up. They can use Michigan as a model.
Oakland County prosecutor Karen McDonald said she and her team included the terrorism charge against the 15-year-old — whom I will not name because alleged terrorists don’t need more publicity — precisely because of the attack’s impact on the entire community.
Beyond the horrific loss of life, she considered: “What about all these other children?”
Talking to reporters last week, McDonald asked, “What about the children who ran screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever set foot back in that school? Those are victims, too, and so are their families, and so is this community.”
A large part of this problem is guns. As a Michigan native who attended a high school a half-hour away from Oxford, I can attest to the strong gun culture in that state. I knew many people for whom getting a gun was a rite of passage, and some who, like the alleged terrorist, were gifted firearms as teens.
But that alone doesn’t account for the increasing number of mass shootings in America. Though violent crime levels overall plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, mass shootings surged. And while not every mass shooting is domestic terrorism, Michigan’s statute gives a solid definition that — if applied — could help change not only how these crimes are prosecuted, but also change the way we think about them as a society.
While dozens of states, including Massachusetts, passed anti-terrorism laws in the years immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks, most, like federal terrorism laws, focus on foreign terror organizations, and on acts such as bombings and the use of hazardous materials. The Bay State’s law focuses on the creation, use, or transport of biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons, although its definition of explosive devices does include firearms.
But Michigan’s law goes further. Its definition of criminal domestic terror includes “an act that is intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” Michigan’s terrorism law makes it punishable by up to life in prison and up to $100,000 in fines.
That definition also better fits not only school shootings but also the two most lethal types of domestic terror threats outlined in June by the White House in its first-ever National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism.
One is white supremacist violence, and the other is anti-government and anti-authority violent extremism and militia movements.
One needs no better example than the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol — and the string of mostly misdemeanor charges that the perpetrators of that attack have faced — to prove that domestic terrorism needs to be criminalized on the federal and local levels. But if you need another, try the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
While the killer who drove his car into a crowd of protesters at that event in August 2017, leaving Heather Heyer dead, was convicted of murder, other domestic terrorism attacks that don’t result in loss of life should not mean leniency for the attacker.
Michigan prosecutors are correct that terrorism is a crime separate unto itself and should be treated as such. Too many of our youngest citizens are learning that lesson firsthand. It’s time for lawmakers to catch up.