The United States has seen an undeniable rise in political violence over the past three years, but political violence is not necessarily something that can be always defined as terrorism. Regardless of the issue being disputed, a street protester exchanging punches – or even bricks or bottles – with a counterprotester is not an act of terrorism on the part of either party. A deliberate, targeted violent attack – if driven by certain motives – can absolutely be classed as an act of terrorism, however, and it can be argued that the recent attack upon an immigration detention facility was, for Antifa, a crossing of the threshold from political violence to terrorism.
To begin, why should Antifa as an entire movement or organization – such as it is – be labeled a terrorist group for the act of one man? The answer is not complicated: That one man, 69-year-old Willem Van Spronsen, distributed a manifesto to his friends before he carried out his attack upon a privately-run Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Tacoma, WA.
One More Manifesto
In this manifesto, Van Spronsen wrote: “I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution. Doing what I can to help defend my precious and wondrous people is an experience too rich to describe. I am Antifa.” Following the death of this self-identified Antifa member at the hands of law enforcement officers, Seattle Antifascist Action in a tweet called him “our good friend and comrade.”
Having established, then, that this gunman and would-be killer was a member of the so-called antifascist action movement, it is important to consider the question of whether his actions constituted a mere act of politically-motivated violence or one of domestic terrorism.
18 U.S. Code § 2331 lays out the definitions of terrorism – both international and domestic. Though even a little cursory research will reveal numerous definitions of terrorism, each of those definitions shares common elements. Ultimately, of course, the most important definition – for the purposes of defining domestic terrorism in the US – is the one contained in the US code:
(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States; and …
Van Spronsen’s assault on the Tacoma facility certainly appears to fit the legal definition of domestic terrorism: It involved acts both dangerous to human life and acts that were in violation of both federal and Washington state laws. According to the Tacoma police department, Van Spronsen was armed with a rifle and, according to witnesses, was throwing incendiary devices and setting vehicles alight. When police officers arrived on the scene, the assailant was attempting to ignite a propane tank.
Van Spronsen’s motive? He claimed he was defending people, but that is the exact claim of almost every terrorist organization throughout history; that it acts in defense of one particular religious or ethnic group. If a written claim of acting in defense of people was sufficient to discount the “terrorist” label, then the very concept of “terrorism” would not exist at all.
“[To] intimidate or coerce the civilian population” or “to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion” are the words of the federal statute. When Van Spronsen wrote: “I regret that I will miss the rest of the revolution,” he seemed to have been suggesting that his own attack in Tacoma was intended – at least in part – to spark or encourage a revolution.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines domestic terrorism as “[p]erpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.” There is no grey area, there, in terms of accurately describing Antifa.
For a moment, let us consider the fact that an extremely talented attorney could claim to be capable of successfully arguing that Van Spronsen was not a terrorist. That idea is not as improbable as it seems. Timothy McVeigh, after all, was not convicted of perpetrating an act of terrorism when he bombed the FBI office building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh, however, was not acting as a member of an organization, nor was he attempting to terrorize or coerce either the civilian population or the government.
His act of mass murder was motivated, rather, by the sheer desire to lash out at the federal government he distrusted and feared and as revenge for past perceived aggression on the part of the federal government toward American citizens.
It appears Van Spronsen intended his attack to be the first step – or one of the first steps – on the road to wider social unrest and even revolutionary activity. McVeigh’s objective had no wider political element – he simply wished to kill agents of the federal government.
The whole discussion becomes a matter of rhetoric; some would argue that describing Van Spronsen as a terrorist, then, is unfair, hyperbolic or even libelous. Not so, if one looks again at how the FBI defines domestic terrorism. There is no question that Antifa qualifies as a movement that espouses an extremist ideology of a political, social and racial nature.
Anarchy and Extremism
Antifa as an “anarchist extremist” group. According to numerous media reports, the DHS and FBI have both classified Antifa as a terrorist organization, but the truth of those claims are still unclear.
Consider, also, that certain US media organizations have pinned the label “terrorist” upon groups or individuals who have done far less than Antifa and far less than Van Spronsen. In July 2011, Politico published an article with the title: “The tea party’s terrorist tactics.” Author of the piece William Yeomans wrote: “the tea party’s hostage-taking has evolved into the intentional infliction of harm on innocent Americans to achieve a political objective – terrorism.”
It is worth noting, here, that the Tea Party was – and has never been – responsible for any acts of violence beyond a few minor scuffles with counterprotesters who sought to disrupt their otherwise totally peaceful rallies. Additionally, no Tea Party activist has ever been charged with taking hostages. Yet, in the eyes of Yeomans – and, presumably, of Politico’s editorial board – the Tea Party is a terrorist organization.
Across the internet – in blogs, YouTube videos, and social media pages – the Tea Party has been labeled a terrorist organization. In fact, there are so many cases of Tea Party members and supporters being called “terrorists” that, regardless of legal technicalities, it would be laughable for anyone to object to the labeling of Antifa as a terrorist organization.
Acting like Terrorists?
In 2011, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress clashed over the nation’s debt ceiling – the raising of which was vehemently opposed by the Tea Party – then-Vice President Joe Biden described Republicans of “acting like terrorists,” according to multiple sources quoted by the media, including ABC News.
Pennsylvania Democrat Mike Doyle, during a White House meeting with House Democrats, said: “the Tea Party acted like terrorists in threatening to blow up the economy.” The representative used the terms several times, apparently, and Biden is reported to have agreed that “they have acted like terrorists.”
Thankfully, Antifa activist Willem Van Spronsen was killed before he himself could take any lives but, by any generally accepted definition, his was an act of terrorism. If making such a claim is unacceptable, then the very idea of terrorism should be eliminated from human consciousness. What is terrorism if it is not the use of violence to effect social or political change through fear and intimidation?
It is time to call a spade a spade and it is also time to acknowledge that the extreme rhetoric coming from Democrat politicians about the treatment of illegal aliens is, very possibly, encouraging violence against federal agents and government contractors. Worse still, the left’s use of the labels “Nazi,” “fascist,” and “white supremacist” to brand conservatives has incited and inspired numerous acts of violence against both Republican politicians and ordinary American conservatives. When does it end? How far will it go? Can it be stopped before it is too late?