The “war on terror” may have receded from its centrality in American life only a few years ago, but the warping effect it’s had on US politics and culture appears here to stay. Since its inception, the framework of “terrorism” and the need to combat it has always had a domestic component. But recent years have seen the practice of labeling one’s political opponents as “terrorists” become normalized across the political spectrum, and the battle against them has become a matter of domestic policy and law enforcement.
The latest example is the battle over Atlanta’s “Cop City,” as it’s been called by activists, a $90 million Public Safety Training Facility in the city that has united a diverse array of left-leaning protesters in opposition, from anti-police demonstrators and anarchists to environmentalists concerned about the project’s destruction of a swath of forest whose preservation was guaranteed in the city constitution in 2017. After dozens of protesters entered the site on Sunday and threw bricks, rocks, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails (at least according to police, a charge that activists deny), police began arresting people later that evening at a nearby music festival, detaining thirty-five people and charging twenty-three of them with domestic terrorism, who are now looking at prison terms as long as thirty-five years.
This latest incident comes after an escalation of the situation in January, when police shot and killed a protester, twenty-six-year-old Manuel “Tortuguita” Terán, as part of a raid on the activists’ encampments, giving the young activist the ominous distinction of being the first environmental activist killed by police in US history. (Police say Terán shot at a state trooper first, but activists denied hearing two sets of shots, and no body-cam footage exists).
Activists set fire to a police cruiser and vandalized the Atlanta police headquarters in the ensuing outrage, and by the end, a total of nineteen protesters would be charged under Georgia’s domestic terrorism statute. That means the number of activists opposing the center who will be prosecuted as terrorists has now risen to more than forty.
Notably, authorities have not claimed in any of these cases that the protesters harmed anyone. In January, officials made clear that neither bystanders nor even police officers themselves were hurt by the activists’ rocks and fireworks, but that they had damaged the windows of a few nearby businesses. Likewise, the police have only claimed that these most recent protests “could have resulted in bodily harm” (emphasis mine), and the actual damage was limited to “multiple pieces of construction equipment” that were destroyed.
Not that this has stopped officials from charging the protesters — who included a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, there as a legal observer with the National Lawyers Guild — as terrorists, or using an overwrought, war on terror–style framework to respond to them. Officials and business owners opposed to the protesters casually labeled them “eco-terrorists,” as the Intercept’s Natasha Lennard reported at the time, while Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp declared a state of emergency and decreed them “domestic terrorists” — something he repeated after this most recent incident, contrasting it with what he called “legitimate protest.”
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or an attorney to tell you that breaking windows and setting fires is not protest — it’s terrorism,” Atlanta police chief Darin Schierbaum said in January, after Tortuguita’s murder sparked a march through midtown Atlanta.
The episode neatly encapsulates what you might call the “concept creep” of terrorism. The American fear of terrorists and the drastic, often illiberal measures taken to combat them were originally sparked by high-profile instances of extremists deliberately killing dozens, even thousands of civilians, like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 or the September 11 attacks in 2001.
Now, apparently all it takes to earn that label is simply damaging or destroying inanimate objects and the possibility, however unrealized, that a person might merely be accidentally hurt in the process. Meanwhile, the only actual human death that’s been registered in the long-running fight over Atlanta’s “Cop City” came at the hands of the same authorities crying “terrorism.”
The Changing Face of “Terror”
This is the culmination of a trend that’s worsened significantly since 2020, which saw an explosion of domestic terrorism cases, the highest number since the government started counting them, and more than double that of the year before — chiefly driven by prosecution of that year’s George Floyd protesters. Domestic terrorism prosecutions continued to spike the next year, when they were largely driven by the 2021 Capitol riot.
In an example of how loosely these charges are invoked, dozens of domestic terrorism cases that year involved charges of, of all things, trafficking contraband cigarettes that were filed in North Carolina. How might the movement of illicit cigarettes possibly qualify as terrorism, you and anyone in their right mind might ask? The resulting profits “could be a source of funding for terrorists,” prosecutors explained. By that reasoning, you could presumably send a bank teller skimming from the till to Guantanamo.
Though the number of domestic terrorism prosecutions has dropped as of November 2022, it’s still nearly 500 percent higher than it was five years ago, and convictions are also up more than 300 percent since the same time. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which compiles these figures, domestic terrorism prosecutions have outnumbered those of international terrorism every year since they’ve been tracked, other than the three years following the September 11 attacks, with prosecutions of the latter hitting a notable low in 2020 — the same year domestic terrorism cases spiked to a historic high.
Donald Trump’s final year in office worsened the war on terror’s domestic focus, and Joe Biden’s first year kept it going. Biden’s domestic counterterrorism strategy, released in 2021, made clear his administration would make “no distinction based on political views,” name-checking, among others, hypothetical terrorists motivated by animal rights, the environment, and “anarchist violent extremists, who violently oppose all forms of capitalism, corporate globalization, and governing institutions.”
Sure enough, arrest warrants for the Cop City protesters list their offense as “participating in actions as part of Defend the Atlanta Forest,” which the warrants describe as “a group classified by the United States Department of Homeland Security [DHS] as Domestic Violent Extremists.” (Though local activists say that “Defend the Atlanta Forest” is more a slogan encompassing various groups than an organization). The DHS has denied that it classifies any groups with this label and has instead told inquiring news outlets that it uses that term for anyone “who seeks to further social or political goals, wholly or in part, through unlawful acts of force or violence,” and that it shares information with state and local law enforcement to that end — which certainly sounds like an admission that the government’s domestic terror crackdown played a role in what’s happened here.
This is primarily a problem of the United States’ enormous and ever-expanding national security state, as well as irresponsible state laws like the domestic terrorism statute Georgia passed in 2017, which is being used against these activists. As we’ve seen, that sprawling police bureaucracy has already slowly but surely broadened its targets from foreign threats to domestic dissidents in exactly the way critics warned about from the start. This trend will only escalate as more resources flow into it, and as opportunistic political officials turn to heavy-handed, repressive measures to deal with grassroots opposition to their policies.
But it’s also a reminder of the importance for the Left of resisting ongoing efforts to bring the war on terror home, and that whatever threats are initially used to justify this expansion — whether Islamic extremism or white supremacists and other far-right extremists — are rarely where it will stop.
Only disruptive protest will help midwife the kind of transformative political change the Left demands. But a domestic war on terror empowered to treat any and all activism as a national security threat to be stamped out will make that a nonstarter.