International Policy Digest

Gage Skidmore
U.S. News /21 Oct 2019

The Danger of Designating the NRA a Terrorist Group

One person’s constitutional rights group is another person’s terrorist organisation. That certainly appears to be the view of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors (BoS) who early last month labeled the NRA a “domestic terrorist organisation.” While the largely indefensible NRA should be criticised for its role in facilitating the devastating and ongoing gun violence epidemic plaguing the United States, they are not a terrorist organisation.

The BoS resolution is largely symbolic and will have little legal effect. The NRA has commenced a legal challenge to that resolution. They are right to sue – because the continued abstract use of the term terrorism threatens democracy. The term should not be used lightly. Just because someone opposes your worldview does not make them a terrorist.

In justifying the designation the resolution reads, “The United States Department of Justice defines terrorist activity, in part, ‘The use of any…explosive, firearm, or other weapon or dangerous device, with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property.’” This definition is so reductionist that it could apply to any case. The victims and witnesses of American gun violence were undoubtedly terrorised, but most were not subject to terrorism, and for those that were, the violence against them was not committed by the NRA or done to further the ideology or political aims of the NRA. The resolution goes on to distort the U.S. federal definition of material support.

The term is often flung around in arguments with the NRA and gun law proponents. In 2018, the now New York attorney general called the NRA a terrorist organisation. In the same year, then NRA president, Oliver North, derided anti-NRA gun activists as “civil terrorists.” These clashes go to the heart of an important issue. The politics of labeling and terrorism.

But what is terrorism? Who gets to call someone or an organisation terrorist? There is no academic consensus on what “terrorism” is or whether an attack qualifies as terrorism. Famously, the United Nations has been trying to define the term for forty years. A survey found that there are over two hundred definitions. Despite obvious nuances, there is some agreement on criteria: “that terrorism entails the intent to generate a wider psychological impact beyond the immediate victims.”

The term has always been highly politicised, having originated as a disgusted emotive descriptor of Robespierre. But the growing use of it as a pejorative opens itself up to abuse and risks damaging our society.

It is hard to imagine a conservative body classing the NRA as a terrorist organisation. Which is kind of the point. The emotive power of the classification can be abused by governments to justify actions that would otherwise not even be considered, such as the widening and strengthening of the security apparatus and the seemingly endless war on terror. The labeling happens in a web of power and reflects power relations.

As difficult as it is to separate emotion from terrorism, we must separate the term from being used pejoratively. I do not doubt the place of frustration, and pain that this resolution was born out of, but it is dangerous to further abstract terrorism to a point where it is used by those in power to marginalise those they disagree with or see as a threat. We should interrogate why certain institutions define it how they do, we need to use an analytical lens to define whether or not an act is terrorism.

Politically driven designations are extremely damaging, just look at the so-called “eco-terrorists” who were targeted by the U.S. government or even the recent designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation by the U.S. following a meeting between Trump and embattled President el-Sisi.

Ultimately it is only those truly in power, such as national governments, that can label a terrorist and have that carry substantial consequences such as sanctions, increased prison sentences and the freezing of assets. The BoS clearly cannot do that, that is not the issue. What matters is their contributions to abstraction of the term terrorism. Those who misused the term “literally,” literally changed the definition in the OED. Words and their applications matter. As we continue to misuse the term terrorism, we open ourselves up to abuses at the hands of those in power. In a common-law jurisdiction where one is presumed innocent, it is disheartening to see such a consequential term used abstractly and pejoratively.

The NRA is but an example of the corrupting influence lobbying has on a government and thus civil society, but they are not an example of a terrorist organisation. I never thought I would express this sentiment, but I wish the NRA all the best in their legal challenge against this resolution.