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James Alex Fields, Jr.

Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Here's why you might not be hearing about it.


WASHINGTON (CIRCA) -- Charlottesville attacker Alex Fields was convicted of murder last week and sentenced to prison for life Tuesday. Now he'll face a litany of federal hate crime charges. But there is one crime Fields won't go to trial for: terrorism.

That's because the federal government has no terrorism charge on the books that can be brought against him.

"There's no standalone domestic terrorism criminal offense," Department of Justice domestic terror counsel Tom Brzozowski told attendees at a seminar on Tuesday. "It does not exist."

Don't be surprised if you were not aware of that fact. Even Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer called for Fields to be prosecuted for terrorism after the attack.

"I hope, that if the facts are there, that we vigorously prosecute this as a case of domestic terrorism," said Signer, while appearing on CNN's State of the Union.

This isn't to say Fields is not a terrorist. According to the definition used by experts, his ideological motivation to engage in violence could meet the requirements. In fact, several national security experts, and even some government officials, referred to Fields as a terrorist shortly after the attack.

"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 former national security adviser, told NBC's Chuck Todd on Meet the Press in August 2017.

Domestic Terror Attacks
Crimes that would fall under the domestic terrorism have been on the rise in recent years.

Law or no law, domestic terrorism has been on an upward trend in recent years, according to Quartz. Analysis of the Global Terrorism Database by University of Maryland researchers shows attacks and fatalities have been on the rise. Most of them have been attributed to terrorists espousing right-wing ideologies, overtaking the left-wing groups and radical environmentalists that have typically engaged in domestic terror in pervious years.

Federal authorities say they are aware of this new trend.

"The FBI assesses the domestic terrorism threat to be a significant one, a major one," FBI Director Chris Wray told Congress during a hearing on Nov. 30, 2017. "The FBI recently has had in the neighborhood of about 1,000 pending domestic terrorism investigations."

Important point here: The lack of a domestic terror charge does not preclude the federal government from conducting domestic terror investigations.

"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 after the Charlottesville attacks. "Domestic terrorism is a designation that helps federal law enforcement investigate."

There has been recent opportunity to do so.

In October alone, Americans watched as improvised explosives were sent to various political figures and CNN and a shooter espousing neo-Nazi ideology killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. These kinds of attacks are not subject to the robust legal codes that target foreign terrorist organizations and, therefore, the do not carry a terrorism designation by the time the perpetrator goes to trial. The lack of a terrorism charge during proceedings means media rarely covers domestic terrorist trials as thoroughly as they would others, explained Brzozowski. It's simply not as newsy.

Instead, domestic terrorists are often charged by states for more traditional crimes, like murder. At the federal level, they are sometimes charged with federal hate crime laws. That designation sometimes blurs the fact that the individual being charged is still very much a terrorist.

"So don't be fooled into thinking they said this is a hate crime, this is all about hate," said Brzozowski. "That's true, in the main, but it does not exclude the possibility, the distinct possibility, that we are talking about domestic terrorism as well.

There have been calls for a distinct federal domestic terrorism charge which would signify the importance of these convictions, however, there is a litany of civil rights issues that could come along with such a law.

"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."

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