Terrorism charge in Michigan school shooting sparks debate

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The prosecutor in the case has been criticized for the move, but some experts agree it was justified and should become the standard where appropriate, while others say it goes too far.

[New York] Less than a week after a 15-year-old fatally shot four students at Oxford High School in Michigan in late November, the prosecutor handling the case, Karen McDonald, made an unusual move: in addition to the murder , she accused the shooter of terrorism. .

“If that’s not terrorism, I don’t know what is,” McDonald told CNN in an interview. “There’s no playbook on how to prosecute a school shooting.”

School shooters, who have been tried in the past, have rarely been charged with terrorism. On the contrary, murder, premeditated murder and attempted murder were the main charges in these cases. Experts and advocates are divided when it comes to labeling these incidents as acts of terrorism, as definitions of terrorism vary. But it, some say, would help prevent such tragedies.

A question of definition

On December 14, 2012, Nicole Hockley was in kickboxing class when a friend called to let her know there had been a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where her two sons were. registered. Only one came home that day. The body of 6-year-old Dylan Hockley was identified later that night.

“Words escape me trying to explain how it feels,” she told The Media Line in an interview. “Life has never been the same.”

School shootings have become all-too-familiar tragedies in the United States over the past few decades. Attacks like the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Columbine, Colorado or, more recently, the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have made headlines, but nearly 100 shootings occur each year in American schools.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the nation’s largest gun violence prevention group, recorded at least 168 incidents of gunfire on school grounds in 2021, killing 36 and injuring 99 nationwide. In 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 96 such incidents and 24 deaths.

According to terrorism and law enforcement expert Dr. Maria Haberfeld, school shootings should be treated as acts of terrorism, and why they are almost never labeled as such, adds it is “purely political”.

“No country wants to admit they have a lot of terrorist attacks,” she said. “It’s bad for the economy, it’s bad for local politics, it’s bad on many levels and for many reasons. So it’s much easier to give it a different definition that creates less panic.

For Haberfeld, who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and chairs the Department of Law, Police Science and the Administration of Criminal Justice, terrorism is “a violent event that is randomly directed against unsuspecting people who simply because they represent, in the sick mind of the offender, a kind of grievance they have against the world.

Based on that definition, Haberfeld thinks the label is appropriate for school shootings and would make federal agencies more accountable for preventing such incidents.

In the Michigan case, prosecutor McDonald said she acted primarily in response to fear felt by students who were not killed or injured that day, but who saw the massacre unfold under their eyes. She believed that this trauma and terror was not covered by the murder charges.

“I understand the fear argument but then if that’s the test we’re using, I think it opens the door for prosecutors to start charging people with terrorism for things that also instill fear. but have nothing to do with terrorism,” Joel Capellan, mass shooting expert and professor of criminal justice at Rowan University, told The Media Line. “I think terrorism should be reserved for clear terrorism cases as we understand them and not water it down somehow to fit mass shootings.”

Labeling any mass shooting as terrorism, he says, is problematic first and foremost because definitions of terrorism vary from state to state and even between federal law enforcement agencies.

“The second problem is that I don’t know if most mass shootings fit most definitions of terrorism, because most definitions of terrorism have a component that says the offender wants to coerce the government or society to do something,” he says. “In the vast majority of mass shootings and ideologically motivated school shootings, the offender isn’t really trying to get anyone to do anything, so usually this stuff falls flat.”

I think terrorism should be reserved for clear terrorism cases as we understand them and not water it down somehow to fit mass shootings

Moreover, Capellan says, motivations can often be “intertwined.”

“You can be an ideological extremist who commits a crime for non-ideological reasons,” he explained.

Because of these factors, Capellan doesn’t think it’s necessary for prosecutors to go down the terrorism route.

“We already have enough laws to be able to punish them to the extent that they need to be punished without invoking this terror language which is a bit arbitrary and in my experience doesn’t really match most mass shootings,” a- he declared.

After the tragedy at her sons’ school, Hockley felt she had to take action and co-founded the organization Sandy Hook Promise in an effort to prevent such incidents from happening.

“Does this sow terror? Does it impact people for the rest of their lives and change them for the rest of their lives? Absolutely,” Hockley said. “It may not be politically motivated, but it has a motive and that motive is to cause fear.”

While she acknowledges that, from this perspective, school shootings meet the criteria for terrorism, Hockley says she sees these violent incidents more as a “societal failure, a mental health and public health issue.” .

A label for prevention

According to Haberfeld, labeling school shootings as terrorism also has practical benefits, especially in terms of prevention.

“There is a change in the severity of the response when the terrorist label is attached to something,” she explained. “Immediately, there are variables that come into play in terms of resources that are not necessarily available for investigations of someone who is suspected of a possible school shooting.”

Among these resources allocated to terrorist events are better means of surveillance and counter-surveillance, detailed Haberfeld.

Additionally, she said, “People would think twice about doing certain things if they knew their actions would be labeled as terrorist activities” because they “don’t like to be labeled as terrorists, they prefer be qualified as individuals who had some problems.

The tag alone, she says, would increase the level of intelligence that would be provided to various law enforcement agencies, as it resonates with people who may have peripheral knowledge of school shooting conspiracies, such as relatives or friends of a potential shooter.

Hockley says that’s a very good point. “When you think about post-9/11, the actions that were taken like the ‘see something, say something’ program – at Sandy Hook Promise, we’ve taken a similar approach which is [the] ‘say something’ [program] Tell the children that if they see any signs they should say something so someone can help them.

“We know enough about school shooters and shooters to know that they don’t just snap, there are signals, signs and threats that then culminate in an act of violence,” he said. she declared. “That means there are a lot of opportunities for intervention, we just have to learn to identify their leaks and identify them for what they are.”

Capellan agrees that more efforts should be focused on prevention. According to him, this effort is “virtually zero at the moment”.

“Very few resources are given to local governments or even schools to be able to do a real kind of prevention like threat assessment, for example,” he said. “I think we’re running out of a lot of time on this.”

There is a change in response severity when the terrorist tag is attached to something

Capellan thinks threat assessment, which involves assessing the likelihood of a threat based on data collection, could have worked well in preventing the latest incident in Michigan, due to social media posts. of Ethan Crumbley, the teenage shooter.

“I think there needs to be more resources, I just don’t think calling it terrorism is the right way to go,” Capellan added.

Set a new standard?

Dylan Hockley was only a freshman when he was murdered. Hockley describes him as “a hug” and “sticks” him to their family. She has pictures of him all over her office and in her bedroom.

“I kiss him morning and evening,” she said.

In addition to charging the Michigan shooter with one count of terrorism, Oakland County District Attorney McDonald made another unusual move: She charged Crumbley’s parents with manslaughter, for n failed to prevent the tragedy. According to McDonald, James and Jennifer Crumbley purchased the handgun used in the attack and improperly stored it. On the day of the tragedy, they had also been summoned to school by the staff who had found a disturbing drawing made by their son.

“I believe there should be consequences for actions,” Hockley says.

“If the Sandy Hook shooter hadn’t killed his mother before going to school, perhaps action would have been taken against her as well, because having this unfettered access to weapons is a mistake,” a- she added.

While McDonald has come under fire for accusing the Oxford High School shooter of terrorism, a first for school shootings, experts agree the move was justified and should become the norm where appropriate.

“I think it’s going to be a good, hopefully deterrent to parents who are very loose with guns around the house,” Capellan said. “We know that school shooters get their guns from their house or from their friends’ house.”

Haberfeld, too, thinks the parents in this case are “absolutely as guilty of what happened as their son.”

“Teenagers are very unstable, full of ideas and they don’t know where they are going,” she said. “You buy them a gun?!

Although Haberfeld thinks McDonald’s approach to the case as a whole is “a model response,” she doesn’t see it becoming the norm.

“Unfortunately, due to the decentralized nature of the legal system here, it would be very difficult to present this as a model because each state has its own particularities in what it thinks of legal definitions, how it defines crimes,” a- she explained. “So it’s a tough battle but definitely should get a lot more attention.”

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