U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this morning that the man who killed Heather Heyer at Saturday’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville could face charges of domestic terrorism.
On ABC‘s Good Morning America, Sessions said:
“It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute. We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make it–make a case. You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigation toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America. So absolutely that is a factor that we’ll be looking at.”
The 20-year-old alleged assailant, James Alex Fields Jr., used his car to plow through a group of anti-fascists and anti-racists near the site of the assembled neo-Nazis, white nationalists and other members of the alt-right who were protesting the removal of a statue celebrating Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
According to multiple witnesses, Fields’ car, a Dodge Challenger, looked to be intentionally aiming for the crowd of counter-protestors. The Challenger hit several people before slamming into a sedan and a minivan–both of which were then pushed into a crowd of pedestrians. Ultimately, 19 people were injured, some severely, and Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal and member of the Democratic Socialists of America was killed.
Fields is currently charged with second-degree murder, three counts of malicious wounding and one count of hit and run with injury. So, does Sessions’ verbal indictment carry any added weight under the circumstances? Yes and no.
Under U.S. law, domestic terrorism is defined at 18 U.S.C. §2331 as:
“Activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended – (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
To begin, Fields’ decision to drive his car through a crowded downtown area “at a high rate of speed” self-evidently qualifies as an act “dangerous to human life” and the concomitant death and injuries–as well as the charged criminal offenses–put a seal on the matter because harm did occur and human life was lost due to his actions. There is no known universe where the choice to barrel a muscle car through a pedestrian-heavy street at or near the height of pedestrian use in a dense, downtown area would not qualify as “acts dangerous to human life”–despite the best efforts of Republican legislatures to make it easier for motorists to run down protestors they disagree with in recent months.
As for the intent requirement, Fields easily satisfies each of the three possibilities contained in the statute.
For one, Fields is —at the very least–an open fascist-sympathizer. He once wrote favorably of the U.S. neo-Nazi movement and has associations with Vanguard America, an openly fascist group operating across the country. His Facebook page–since deleted–contained multiple references to Nazism, fascism, alt-right memes and even featured a baby photograph of Adolf Hitler. Earlier in the day, he can be seen and heard chanting: “Fags, go home, you have no testosterone.”
Avowed and practicing fascists or–again, at the very least–members of the alt-right who harbor fascist sympathies or even those who use fascist imagery to troll people and elicit reactions would seemingly offer no quarter to anti-racists and anti-fascists. Fields is clearly on record in opposition to the people he allegedly slammed his car into. The actions of such fascistic individuals, like Fields, would almost certainly jibe with intent to intimidate or coerce ideological enemies, like the people who harmed.
If this appears a bit conclusory, that’s really not an issue. The statute is controversially broad and simply calls for the alleged perpetrator to have performed such actions that “appear to be intended…to intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” The inference is simple enough; I believe Fields likely rammed his car into anti-fascists and anti-racists because he disagreed with their politics as those politics appear to be inimical to his own.
A similar analysis follows for the second and third intent possibilities as well.
Again, taking Fields’ alleged fascism at face value, his actions against and toward the civilian population of Charlottesville, Virginia should qualify as a direct attempt to influence government policy–whether that government is defined as local, state or federal. Killing and wounding innocent civilians in the name of political goals and opinions is a political act. Politics are hashed out in various ways; more often than not via government. Fields’ alleged attack on anti-racists and anti-fascists was his way of doing politics.
Finally, the death of Heather Heyer, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, could easily be classified as a political assassination intended to influence government conduct. Fields need not have known Heyer’s exact politics. In fact, he likely didn’t. It was enough for Fields to know Heyer was protesting in opposition to fascism generally–his apparent political ideology. By killing Heyer, Fields was saying he had no patience for socialism, anti-fascism or anti-racism in America.
Thus, Fields’ alleged decision to turn his car into a weapon aimed at his political opponents would, as Attorney General Sessions said, easily meet the definition of domestic terrorism under U.S. law.
As for the importance of such a designation–it’s largely symbolic. Penalties for domestic terrorism aren’t nearly as stiff as those for international terrorism. But it’s certainly a change in the discourse–white males are seldom, if ever, accused of domestic terrorism by conservative politicians in the United States.
[image: James Alex Fields Jr via Albermale County Jail]