Saturday, April 16, 2005

Teens and the terrorism laws

One of the more troubling aspects of anti-terrorism laws generally -- and the Patriot Act in particular -- has been the likelihood that they are open to a kind of prosecutorial abuse: namely, that they can be used to charge people whose crimes have little or nothing to do with terrorism.

This was especially clear in the case of the Patriot Act's "sneak and peek" provisions that allow federal agents to conduct searches of people's homes without ever notifying them. These provisions were already available to the FBI in terrorism investigations; what the Patriot Act did was enable law enforcement to use them in non-terrorism-related cases. And sure enough, as TalkLeft's TChris reported recently, there has been a dramatic expansion of sneak-and-peek warrants since Bush took office.

Now comes an Associated Press report out of Michigan that says that teens who are suspected of plotting attacks on their schools are being charged under anti-terror laws:
LANSING -- Michigan's use of an anti-terrorism law to curb school violence has sparked debate over the law's intent and raised an important question among prosecutors, school officials and others: When is a troubled teen a terrorist?

Law enforcement officials say the law against threatening terrorism, enacted in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, gives them a vital tool to avert shootings like the one last month in Minnesota, where a student shot and killed nine people before turning the gun on himself.

With no specific state law against threatening to kill someone, law enforcement official say, the terrorism law is the only one that works.

But many school-violence experts say labeling a disturbed or angry teen a terrorist is going overboard. In some cases, they say, what the student needs is psychological help, not jail time.

"(We have to) discern between students who pose a threat and students who are making threats," said Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor at the Michigan State University School of Social Work. "It appears the terrorism law doesn't make that distinction."

Two Michigan cases, one in Macomb County northeast of Detroit and one in adjoining Oakland County, appear to be among the first in the country where terrorism laws are being applied to school violence.

One involves a 17-year old accused of threatening to bring a gun to school to kill a school liaison officer and whose home, when checked by police, revealed a cache of firearms, ammunition, bomb-making materials and instructions, Nazi flags and books about white supremacy and Adolf Hitler.

Andrew Osantowski of Macomb County's Clinton Township was arrested last September after authorities received a tip from an Idaho girl who had been exchanging messages with Osantowski over the Internet. He has been charged as an adult and faces up to 20 years in prison.

The other case involves a 14-year-old whose backpack contained a notebook with a "kill list" that included a dozen people, including his mother, several students and school officials.

A police search of Mark David O'Berry's home in Oakland County's White Lake Township in mid-March found no weapons, and he has denied making the list. He is being dealt with as a juvenile and could be held until age 19 if found guilty.

Prosecutors in both cases say they used the state's terrorism law because no other charge applied.

There's little doubt, I think, that school rampages like Columbine and, more recently, the killings in Minnesota, represent a kind of inchoate terrorism, since it's clear that the purpose is to terrorize their classmates and teachers. They generally, however, lack the real policy-driven and issue-specific nature of most terrorism (see, e.g., Eric Rudolph).

Applying anti-terrorism laws to cases involving troubled teens strikes me as deeply wrong-headed. Not only do we dilute the meaning of terrorism, and expand the law into places it was not intended to be used, but we really blur the line between intention and action.

People talk loosely about committing acts of terrorism relatively regularly, especially in Internet chat rooms and forums like Free Republic and Liberty Forum. Generally, however, law enforcement draws the line at taking concrete action toward making those fantasies into realities -- say, buying guns and ammo or making pipe bombs or incendiary devices.

Now, in the case of the teen with the weapons cache -- which included bomb-making materials and instructions -- the arrest seems prudent, and it appears from the outside at least that there's a gap in Michigan's laws if someone with such a cache (especially a minor) can't be charged with some kind of explosives violations. But in the case of the teen caught with the "kill list," I'm still looking for evidence that he had moved beyond simply talking about it (in which case he needs counseling, not jail) to doing something to implement it (at which point law enforcement should be able to act).

Unfortunately, it's pretty common for kids to fantasize about killing classmates or authority figures -- common enough that, were we to charge every kid who did so, our jails would need to triple in size. Arresting troubled teens for such fantasies seems like another step toward Minority Report-style law enforcement.

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