Terrorism is complicated


The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office today dropped terrorism charges against 8 people involved in protests surrounding the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.

According to County Attorney Susan Gaertner, it’s because the state’s terrorism law “complicates the case.” She also said it was “distracting,” according to her news release:

The terrorism law, enacted by the 2002 Minnesota Legislature, provides longer sentences for felony crimes that involve premeditation and violence to persons or property and which are intended, among other things, to intimidate the public and disrupt the right of lawful assembly. In this case, however, the state’s Sentencing Guidelines provide for stayed prison sentences with jail time, fines and other sanctions as possible conditions of probation. Thus, the defendants would not face longer prison sentences if convicted under the terrorism sentencing enhancement.

(Read the full release here.)

It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the usefulness of the law passed by the Legislature in the immediate aftermath of September 11.

“Distracting” and “complicated” are two words that weren’t uttered back when the issue was being debated.

“These are extraordinary times, and with extraordinary times come extraordinary measures,” then state-rep (now Hennepin County sheriff) Rich Stanek said. “For the last several years, the pendulum has swung greatly in favor of open meeting laws, access by the public, freedom of information, and I think that’s good to an extent, but then you have Sept. 11 roll around, and now you see the pendulum swinging the other way.”

At the time, much of the debate focused on foreigners. You may remember the controversy over issuing foreigners color-coded visa cards.

All 8 of those charged in the aftermath of the convention were white Americans. Nobody saw that coming in a case like this. Or did they?

“A charge of this nature significantly chills political speech,” Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney said after their arrest on the terrorism charges.

“We’re talking about legislation that will effect the civil rights of all people in Minnesota and, unfortunately, no one realizes or very few people realize what the extent of this legislation is,” Peter Erlinder, a professor of constitutional law at the William Mitchell College of Law, said in 2002.

  • Bob

    Our legislature caved in/overreacted in the wake of 9/11. A repeal of this law is certainly called for.

    Though he’s been dead for a few hundred years, Ben Franklin had it right when he said that those who would sacrifice essential liberty for the sake of enhanced security deserve neither liberty nor security.

    Also, let’s keep in mind that the chances of anyone in the U.S. being the subject of a terrorist attack are less than the chance of being struck by lightning.

  • Bob Collins

    Your statistic, while accurate, Bob, ignores the purpose of terrorism. It’s to inflict terror and thereby make societies do things ON THEIR OWN that are damaging.

  • Tyler

    Interesting comment, BC:

    “[The purpose of terror] is to inflict terror and thereby make societies do things ON THEIR OWN that are damaging.”

    I would argue that the laws passed since 9/11 (Patriot Act, etc.) , the episodes of torture inflicted by the U.S., and invasions of privacy have been far more damaging than the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C.

    Our society has, in fact, done things ON ITS OWN that are damaging as a result of terror.

  • Kim V

    This is what annoys me: So many people seem to forget that terrorists can be white American citizens too. I would consider the KKK and other white supremacist groups as terrorist groups, but a lot of people just want to focus on Al Qaeda.

  • bsimon

    “According to County Attorney Susan Gaertner, it’s because the state’s terrorism law “complicates the case.” She also said it was “distracting,” according to her news release … It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the usefulness of the law passed by the Legislature in the immediate aftermath of September 11.”

    I think such shoddy legislation is what you get when you legislate based on fear rather than taking the time to deliberate. As Tyler noted, we have done things to ourselves that we would not have done had we not been attacked.

    If, as Bob C notes, the goal of terrorism is to instill fear, the attacks were successful. We still have political leaders – Dick Cheney comes to mind – who are trying to influence public policy based on fear. By that metric, the 2001 attacks were enormously successful.

  • For people reading the actual definitions of terrorism during the PATRIOT era, it’s not surprising that they were used this way. It’s hard to imagine legislators (at least those who were paying attention) wouldn’t have seen the obvious way the definition would include protesters. And while thankfully this absurd definition isn’t being used against the RNC 8 any more, it has already been used against many environmentalists, and the law is likely to be used again so long as it stays on the books.

    The nature of the conspiracy charges themselves are as troubling or more troubling than the terrorism label. Imagine being held responsible not for what you did, or what you planned to do, or what your friends planned to do, but to be held responsible for what anyone you interacted with might have discussed or at one time considered doing? This is about the extent of the charges. There’s no claim that there was a conspiracy among the RNC 8 to do any felonious act. There’s only a charge that they were working together, and that maybe someone (maybe one of the RNC 8, maybe not) might have considered something that would qualify as a felony. And since there wasn’t any physical evidence pointing to any real intent (except perhaps the intent to block traffic, which is not a felony) the case is based on insinuation and spying and the cherrypicking of surveillance.

    (Note also the people doing this surveillance: an informant who has since been convicted of assault, the politicized FBI under Gonzalez, and Bob Fletcher, a corrupt sheriff whose closest associates had just been caught in an FBI sting)

  • Sean


    Pretty sure that was the point of the comment in the first place.

  • Yes it IS complicated! The points about the goal of real terrorists being to “terrorize” us into stupid and counterproductive reactions are all valid and I don’t think anyone knows the full extent of how successful that has been. Just another example of how we’ve hurt ourselves is emerging with the news that only 1/5 of the number of FBI agents who were assigned to the 1980s S & L Crisis are now assigned to investigate the financial frauds that produced the toxic assets that are threatening to collapse our economy. The current financial losses are 100 to 1000 times greater than those caused by the S & L Crisis but there are only 1/5 the number of FBI agents investigating?!

    Why are there so few FBI agents available to investigate the current, massive financial frauds? Because up to half of the FBI is working in the 58 “Fusion Centers” and 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country, collecting all kinds of minutia and data on citizens. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack and they’re busy adding more hay. The Department of Homeland Security commissioned a study by the National Academy of Sciences that concluded a few months ago that all these “Total Information Awareness” type collection-datamining programs (producing a lot of busy work for law enforcement) don’t work.

    My insightful husband Ross and mnpACT! blogger David Mindeman also made some comments (url below) about the history of these pre-emptive terrorism arrests of the RNC 8 which stood as the sole justification for over three months before the Prosecutor finally backed them up by non-terrorism charges (as it became increasingly clear that the Minnesota Patriot Act charges were totally bogus). Then four months after the back-up charges were in place, the original terrorism charges are removed. What’s the term for that? “Smoke and mirrors”? I don’t know but there’s got to be one. What everyone’s missing, apparently including Susan Gaertner, is that there would never have been pre-emptive arrests in the first place without the MN Patriot Act nonsense because the “Bush Doctrine” pre-emption is a creature of the so-called “war on terror”. And by the way the Obama Administration has said the (misbegotten) “war on terror” is over.

    Unfortunately Obama has not said anything about “Bush Doctrine” being over, but “pre-emption”–arresting someone based on the idea they might commit a crime (like when Iraq might have WMD)–has never been something the police can do, for instance, in regard to garden variety crimes.

    See: mnpACT!