Considering a domestic terrorism statute and its alternatives

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Recent years have seen an increase in right-wing extremist violence within the United States, which has highlighted the disparities in law enforcement’s handling of “international” as opposed to “domestic” terrorism. Public, legal, and law enforcement commenters have begun calling for a “domestic terrorism statute,” arguing that the lack of such a statute is the largest hurdle in prosecuting domestic terrorists. This Essay explains that the primary cause of the disparity in prosecutions between domestic and international terrorists is not a lack of a domestic terrorism statute but rather the lack of a generalized terrorism statute and the failure to designate right-wing organizations as “terrorists.” Law enforcement pursuing international terrorists rely on these designations and material support statutes far more than on any statutes prohibiting terrorist acts, largely because the acts prohibited are so limited that they are rarely useful, even in the international context. But the two options of designating domestic terrorist organizations or creating a broad terrorism statute are highly problematic. This Essay discusses the barriers to prosecuting domestic terrorists as terrorists, including the problems with current terrorism statutes in responding to modern, small scale attacks and the tactics used to prosecute international terrorists. It then explores the problems with broad, generalized terrorism statutes that have been passed at the state level and drafted in Congress, and the problems with simply applying the international framework for terrorist designations to domestic terrorists. Finally, it suggests several alternative options to lessen the disparity between the handling of right-wing and other domestic terrorists, and international terrorists.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1061-1100
Number of pages40
JournalNorthwestern University Law Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2020


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