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James Alex Fields, Jr.

Here's why the Charlottesville attack won't be charged as terrorism

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The brutal car attack during Charlottesville's white supremacist protest has been denounced as terrorism by several political figures and national leaders, with some calling for terrorism charges to be applied.

One person died and 19 were injured after Alex Fields, Jr. allegedly drove his car through a group of counter-protesters on a crowded city street. Fields reportedly harbored Nazi sympathies, according to the Washington Post, leading many to claim the incident was indeed an act of terror.

"What terrorism is, is the use of violence to incite terror and fear, and of course it was terrorism," Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump's national security adviser, told NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press.

Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer noted during an interview on CNN's State of the Union that he would let the authorities come to their own decision, but hoped that terrorism charges would be applied, if possible.

"I hope, that if the facts are there, that we vigorously prosecute this as a case of domestic terrorism," said Signer.

The problem is, domestic terrorism isn't in and of itself a crime.

"In federal law, there is no actual crime of domestic terrorism," Ed Chung, vice president of criminal justice reform at the Center for American Progress, told Circa in an interview. "Domestic terrorism is a designation that helps federal law enforcement investigate."

While it may sound strange in a post 9/11 world that there is no law on the books for domestic terrorism, Chung noted there are important reasons it does not exist, particularly regarding the Constitution.

"When we are designating different groups as terrorists within the country, we have to operate within the confines of the constitution," said Chung. "And so there are those types of limitations that if you are trying to criminalize certain behaviors that are associated with first amendment speech, or the exercise of speech, Congress generally takes a very careful approach, and should take a very careful approach. Obviously, that context is different when you have foreign nationals who are conducting acts of terrorism."

Domestic terror charges may not apply, but there are other charges that could be brought up in the Charlottesville case. Fields already faces a murder charge and several other felonies inside the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the Department of Justice is also conducting a civil rights investigation.

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"In this particular case of crimes that would be applicable, are hate crimes provisions," said Chung, specifically ones under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. Under the act, there would have to be proof that the suspect acted with a racial motivation while perpetrating the crime.

RELATED LINKS

Charlotesville was a perfect storm for violence

Two former neo-Nazis explained how to confront racists

Mike Pence defended Trump's response to the violence in Charlottesville

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