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Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon talks with the media during a press conference in her office at the State House in Augusta on June 30, 2017. Gideon is challenging longtime Sen. Susan Collins for her seat. | Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images Gideon could oust the Senate’s last moderate Republican from New England. Democrats have been trying to unseat longtime Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins for nearly 20 years and were handed resounding defeats each time. Sara Gideon could make 2020 different. Gideon, the Democratic speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, is giving Collins the political fight of her life. Though she started out mostly unknown, apart from Maine political circles, polls show a very tight race with Gideon ahead. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll found Gideon with a 12-percentage-point lead, operatives in both parties say the gap is in the single digits — closer to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points. “Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate,” Gideon told Vox in an interview. “Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now.” Before running for Senate, Gideon won recognition for helping to pass bold climate legislation that aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in Maine by 2050, as well as for gathering enough votes to override conservative Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of abill allowingaccess to the opioid overdose-reversing drug Naloxone without a prescription. Although Collins has been in Maine politics for much longer, Gideon has developed a following in the state. “She’s an excellent speaker of the House, she knows policy,” said voter Ben Campo of North Yarmouth, Maine. “She listens to voters.” Robert F. Bukaty/AP Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, Democratic candidate for US Senate, at a campaign stop on September 17, 2020, in Scarborough, Maine. If Collins can keep the race a referendum about her track record in Maine, most notably the millions of dollars she’s brought back to the state over the years, she has a shot at keeping her seat. But if Gideon can keep the race focused on national issues — and tie Collins to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump — it could be that much harder for Collins, who has so far kept silent on whether she supports Trump’s reelection bid, to remain in Congress. “Sen. Collins likes to talk a lot about how she’s hopeful something’s going to happen, or how she co-signed a piece of legislation, or that she’s disappointed or concerned that something’s happening,” Gideon told supporters at a socially distanced campaign event. “In all seriousness, as long as Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if Susan Collins is hopeful or concerned or disappointed. Because if he doesn’t want it to happen, it will literally never see the light of day.” Some Gideon supporters are also thinking about how Maine fits into the overall Senate map this year, which has Democrats on the offense in a number of swing states, including those that traditionally favor Republicans. “This is the most important election in my life — this is it,” said Falmouth, Maine, voter Renee Givner after a recent Gideon campaign event. “If the Senate continues to be run by Mitch McConnell, we are in worse trouble than anyone expects.” Maine is known for its independence, but there are 91,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state; Biden is polling well there, too. Collins has outrun Republican presidential candidates before, but she’ll have to outdo Trump by a large margin to keep her seat. “We are confident that when Mainers look at their options in this race, they will choose to re-elect a Senator who is an experienced, proven, effective leader; knows every corner of the state; and was raised with Maine values,” Collins campaign spokesperson Annie Clark told Vox in a statement. Vox recently interviewed Gideon on the competitiveness of her race, her top policy priorities if elected, and how climate change and warming oceans are altering her state’s economy. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Ella Nilsen In past cycles, Sen. Susan Collins has handily beaten her Democratic challengers. Why do you think this year is different and so competitive? Sara Gideon I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, we look at everything in the context of where we are, when it is, and what’s happening in the world around us. Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate. Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now. The other piece of that is the fact that she has taken votes more and more that leave Mainers feeling left behind. Mainers are very practical people, thinking about what’s going on in their lives every day and the kind of help that they need. I think that’s what we’re seeing reflected here. Ella Nilsen If you are elected in November, what would your first policy priority be in office? Sara Gideon Hard question, when there’s so much for us to do and to fix. So there is not one answer, there’s three, because I think these are the three imperatives for us. First of all, we have to deal with what I think of as a foundational issue — and that is the fact that special interests have so much power that they are actually preventing us from getting things done. Reforming Washington in ways that include everything from overturning Citizens United to passing the DISCLOSE Act [the Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act] and reducing special interest influence on people is vitally important. It’s how we get the other work done. The two policy areas that I feel are just the most important to focus on, not to the exclusion of others ... everywhere we go in the state of Maine, health care is what people tell us that they are most worried about, the greatest barrier for them and their success. So making sure that we are continuing to lower the cost of health care and to also make it more secure, especially in rural Maine, is really important. The other, which you heard me talk about a number of times tonight, is climate. In Maine, we are very personally connected to our environment around us, our woods, our water, our air, but also our livelihoods. Our traditions are dependent on them as well, our very economy. That is something that Mainers are ready for their senator to take on. Ella Nilsen I want to follow up specifically on climate with a two-part question. I want to ask if you support Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan he’s laid out, which includes some more aggressive targets, including 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. Secondly, the effects of climate change have been very visible recently, with wildfires in the western United States and hurricanes in the southern part of the country. How is it visible here in New England? Sara Gideon Well, let me start by saying I hope Joe Biden becomes our next president, and I look forward to working with him as a senator and figuring out together how we should tackle climate change. In the interim, what I can share with you is that we have developed a climate plan that we released a couple of weeks ago. [We] can share that with you in the interest of answering the other part of your question, since that’s easy for you to get. [Gideon’s climate plan calls for rejoining the Paris Climate agreement, passing legislation to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and undoing Trump’s rollbacks of vehicle emission regulations, among other things. Gideon also wants Maine to continue developing on-shore and offshore wind and scaling up biomass production. She supports a clean energy standard for utility companies, although she does not specify a timeline for achieving that.] Ella Nilsen Sure. Sara Gideon So here’s the thing. We see it around us every day. For us on this campaign trail, when you talk to people — it doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, it doesn’t matter even if they’re wearing a Make America Great Again hat. They will share with you their experience in how climate is affecting us right now. The Gulf of Maine is the second fastest warming body of ocean in the entire world. That means not only do we see iconic Maine lobsters migrating north, but we also see an increase in ocean acidification and a loss and change in marine life in conjunction with that. We are seeing sea level rise and we’re seeing erosion caused by that, and the intensity and unpredictability of storms that we see both coastal and inland. That absolutely is something that has a real cost associated with it for people, that they see and experience every day. Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images Lobster boat captain Genevieve McDonald raises a lobster trap while fishing off the coast of Stonington, Maine, on September 5, 2015. For farmers in Central Maine and northern Aroostook County, we’ve experienced the second-hottest summer on record for the second year in a row, and drought increasingly year after year, which impacts their crops. Even in the recreation and tourism world, we see changes. This is one that sounds very Maine, but the moose population is declining because of tick-borne diseases, and those tick-borne diseases and other pests are increasingly prevalent because of climate change. Ella Nilsen Which sitting senator do you admire the most, and which do you see most closely matching your policy positions? Sara Gideon Oh, well, that’s a kind of question that I never like to answer. Look, why don’t I [share] some of the Maine senators that I think I’ve admired the most and look up to. First of all, Sen. [Ed] Muskie, who really changed the course of not just what was happening here in Maine but across the country, with the Clean Water Act. That was vitally important to us, and part of the reason I mentioned it is that we see it under threat with this president. I also think of Margaret Chase Smith, who ironically Sen. Collins, I think, likes to think of herself as being like. She was an example of somebody who stood up when it was important to say what was right, and that is not what we see Sen. Collins doing. And I even look at Sen. [William] Cohen, who Sen. Collins used to work for, and the fact that he made the decision to say what he thinks about this president and whether he should be reelected. Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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The future of the Senate may come down to Susan Collins
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) attends a Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee hearing on June 10, 2020, in Washington, DC. | Al-Drago-Pool/Getty Images Collins’s uncomfortable relationship with a Trump-led GOP, explained. BRUNSWICK, Maine — Voters like Renee Givner of Falmouth, Maine, are the kind of independents who historically have handed Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) a resounding victory, term after term. “I really think Susan Collins did a good job at one time, and I trusted her at one time,” Givner told me. This year, though, Givner “had to become a Democrat,” and will vote for Collins’s Democratic opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, in one of this year’smost competitive and expensive Senate campaigns. “This is the most important election in my life — this is it,” Givner said after a recent Gideon campaign event. “If the Senate continues to be run by Mitch McConnell, we are in worse trouble than anyone expects.” In past years, Collins cruised to reelection with a voter coalition made up of Republicans, independents, and Democrats who liked her willingness to buck her party. But in 2020, her future in the Senate looks much more uncertain. Susan Collins is the lone New England Republican senator left in a party dominated by President Donald Trump — and the once-powerful, bipartisan “mod squad” of the US Senate is a shell of its former self. “Even before I left, they were down to four or five of them,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff for Collins’s former longtime colleague Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME). “They used to joke they could hold their weekly lunch in a phone booth.” Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) rides the Senate subway on February 5, 2020, in Washington, DC, following a vote in the Senate impeachment trial that acquitted President Donald Trump. The middle Collins occupies has shrunk dramatically over the years, from approximately 27 senators in 2005 to just six in 2013, per analysis by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver. Just three Republican senators with a track recordof voting against their own partyremain: Collins, and Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Mitt Romney (R-UT). Given Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent death and the looming fight over confirming her replacement, the stakes for this unpredictable group of senators have never been higher. Collins is caught between Trump voters who think she should embrace the president more fully, and those who think she hasn’t done enough to stand up to him. She needs both to win. Polls show a tight race, with Gideon ahead slightly. While a recent Quinnipiac University poll found Gideon with a 12-percentage-point lead, operatives in both parties say the gap is in the single digits — closer to a recent New York Times/Siena College poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 percentage points. “We are confident that when Mainers look at their options in this race, they will choose to re-elect a Senator who is an experienced, proven, effective leader; knows every corner of the state; and was raised with Maine values,” Collins campaign spokesperson Annie Clark told Vox in a statement. Trump looms large over the races of vulnerable GOP senators across the country. Though many have embraced the president, Collins has stayed silent on the subject of her support for Trump’s own reelection bid; she has repeatedly declined to comment on whether she’s voting for him. “What I can tell you is that she is just so surprised that so many people who have supported her for so many years are not supporting her today; she can’t figure it out,” said Portland, Maine, real estate developer Joe Boulos, a longtime Collins supporter and friend. “I think she’s not running against Sara Gideon, she’s running against the contempt and dislike of Trump and her [Supreme Court Justice Brett]Kavanaugh vote.” With another Supreme Court confirmation battle brewing, it’s too early to tell whether Collins’s stance on Ginsburg’s seat moves the needle closer to her or to Gideon. But Maine voters are well aware their state could shift the balance of power in the US Senate. Collins’s brand is being complicated by Trump Sitting outside the Penobscot Snowmobile Club in Hermon, Maine, Collins looked up as a military plane flew overhead. “The sound of freedom,” Collins said through her red-, white-, and blue-striped mask. Moments before, she posed for photos with members of four regional snowmobile clubs next to a massive orange snowmobile trail groomer — the result of federal USDA grant money Collins helped secure to help the clubs boost regional tourism in Maine’s largely rural Second Congressional District. Though Collins was speaking at the club in her official Senate capacity, events like these demonstrate the longtime senator’s primary reelection pitch. Collins frequently points out that should Republicans hold the majority, she’s next in line to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. She’s also made the Paycheck Protection Program, and the small-business loans it generated following passage of the CARES Act, a large part of her argument for why she should get another term. “This has been extraordinarily successful. It’s been used by three-quarters of Maine’s small businesses, and it’s been used to sustain 256,000 jobs in our state,” Collins told Vox in an interview. “Regrettably, there are still businesses like restaurants that are still struggling. ... If they could get a second PPP loan, it would help ensure they stay afloat and that their employees still have jobs.” Collins is betting that a pragmatic brand in her home state and the millions she’s brought back to Maine is strong enough for her to win reelection, and she’s been in office a lot longer than many of her Republican colleagues who also face tough races this year. “For the past seven consecutive years, Sen. Collins has been named as the most bipartisan member of Congress,” said Clark, her campaign spokesperson, who noted that Collins has taken heat over her votes from both Democrats and Republicans in recent years. “In every vote, Sen. Collins always does what she thinks is right for the people of Maine and America.” Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images Sen. Susan Collins speaks to Moody’s Collision Center employees in Gorham, Maine on July 15, 2020. But if Collins is so pragmatic, why does she still identify as a member of the Republican Party? A Colby College student posed this question to Collins in April 2015, a couple of months before Trump’s presidential candidacy was even a blip on the radar. “I am a Republican because I believe in core Republican values,” Collins responded then. “I believe in personal responsibility, I believe in individual liberty, in smaller government ... I see myself as being in the tradition of the Republican Party that has always been in the Northeast. It goes to Margaret Chase Smith, to Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, the more centrist part of the Republican Party.” That brand of centrism comes at a high cost with Trump leading the GOP. Whether Collins likes it or not, part of her legacy — and her electoral fate — are now tied to the president. “It’s really hard to be a moderate Republican in a party that is so much defined by Trump,” said New America senior fellow Lee Drutman. “It’s really hard to create a political identity as a moderate because so much of voting is nationalized, it’s partisan, and it’s an extension of your feelings about the president.” As much as some voters want Collins to denounce Trump, she needs his supporters to vote for her. Trump’s name didn’t come up once at the snowmobile club event in Hermon, but his presence couldn’t be missed in the surrounding area. Eleven Trump signs dotted the road leading to the club, and one attendee told me there are many more around the Second Congressional District, which Trump won by over 10 percentage points in 2016 — even after former President Barack Obama won it by nearly 9 percentage points in 2012. “I’ve seen one Biden sign and a ton of Trump advertising,” said Norman Young, a Trump and Collins supporter who lives in Byron, Maine, and called the state’s tight Senate race “very, very important to the whole country.” More Blue Lives Matter flags than American flags can be seen flying in some of Maine’s tiny rural communities. In one town, a large Trump flag hung suspended from a water tower. One resident had defiantly installed a Joe Biden campaign sign reading “ByeDon” in their front yard, across the street from a neighbor whose lawn was covered in Trump signs. This part of the state is a far cry from the liberal southern Maine enclave of Portland. Young called it “the two-Maine syndrome, where Portland is dictating our way of life.” Still, the district has swung Democratic, as it did for Obama in 2012 before lurching dramatically to Trump in 2016. Democratic Rep. Jared Golden was narrowly elected in 2018 and is expected to win again this year. The Second Congressional District is in Collins’s blood. Hermon may be rural, but it’s still 180 miles south of the senator’s hometown of Caribou, a northern Maine outpost near the Canadian border. Republican politics are “in my DNA,” Collins told the Colby students in 2015. Four generations of her father’s family served in the Maine legislature, she said, quipping, “One was a Democrat, but we try not to let that be known.” Collins has been in the Republican Party a lot longer than Trump. But even as Trump has fundamentally altered the GOP, she hasn’t abandoned it yet. “There’s a reason she’s the only northeastern Republican left,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer. “She doesn’t really fit into the Trump GOP. She was increasingly an ill fit for the Republican Party before Trump.” Sara Gideon is giving Collins the fight of her life Current Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon is Collins’s most serious challenge in decades. Before running for Senate, Gideon garnered recognition in the state for helping to pass climate legislation aiming to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in Maine by 2050, and for gathering enough votes to override conservative Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of abill allowingaccess to the opioid overdose-reversing drug Naloxone without a prescription. Even though she was a known entity in Maine political circles, Gideon freely admits she was not a household name when she decided to run. When asked why the race against one of Maine’s most powerful figures is so competitive, Gideon said she recognizes that it’s happening within the context of national politics. “Certainly the context of President Trump and the damage he has done, both proactively and also with the lack of leadership, is really important as voters think about who they want not only leading the country but also who they want representing us in the Senate,” Gideon told Vox in an interview. “Sen. Collins has made the choice not to stand up to this president, not to stand up for what Mainers think is right, and that is absolutely relevant to where we are right now.” Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon briefly talks with the media during the Tuesday primary in Portland, Maine on July 14, 2020. Even before Gideon announced her campaign, a $3 million pot of money — crowdfunded by progressive Democratic groups after Collins’s controversial vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — was waiting for whoever ended up taking on the incumbent. That amount has since grown to over $4 million; that and other spending from Democratic groups has resulted in what Collins’ campaign spokesperson Clark calls “false and misleading ads that attack Sen. Collins’ record and impugn her reputation.” Republicans are also trying to define Gideon negatively in voters’ minds, and millions more have poured into the state from outside groups of both parties, leading to a deluge of negative TV advertising. “Gideon’s a thoughtful, smart alternative,” said Colby College government professor Dan Shea. “But there’s no doubt that’s she’s benefitted from a massive influx of money. She was not known throughout the state.” There are now 91,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, per data from the Maine secretary of state’s office, and it’s young voters especially who are driving that trend, Shea said. Maine also has one of the oldest populations in the nation, and a recent poll found voters over 50 supporting Biden over Trump by double digits. “This election is such a closer year, and such an important year for Democratic candidates,” Bowdoin College student and Gideon supporter Ellery Harkness told Vox, adding that she plans to vote in the Maine Senate election. “There seems to be this momentum.” As much as Collins is running on bringing back federal dollars to everything from Maine’s shipyards to the Penobscot Snowmobile Club, Gideon is running on a much more national message: As long as Susan Collins remains in office, Mitch McConnell will remain in power. “As long as Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if Susan Collins is hopeful or concerned or disappointed,” Gideon told a socially distanced crowd of about 45 people at a recent campaign event. “Because if he doesn’t want it to happen, it will literally never see the light of day. And as long as Sen. Collins is our senator from Maine, Mitch McConnell will be that majority leader, and we will continue to not see progress.” Bipartisan cooperation is failing in the US Senate Political polarization on Capitol Hill has been evident for years, and the situation is getting worse. Calderwood, the former chief of staff to Olympia Snowe, told Vox she encountered a number of Republican leaders in the Senate, including those who were open to bipartisan compromise (Bob Dole and, to some extent, Trent Lott) to those who weren’t (Bill Frist and McConnell). “McConnell is, in my experience, a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of guy,” Calderwood said. “You just should line up and go along, and he doesn’t like it when you don’t. He’s very good at getting a group of his followers to gang up on whoever’s [going] alone. That was his favorite approach.” Collins has been on the receiving end of her party’s wrath, like when she was one of a small group of Republicans who cast the decisive votes against the GOP’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. So far, Collins and Murkowski are the only Republican senators who have said they don’t support confirming a new justice to the Supreme Court before the November election, which is a little over a month away. Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images Sen. Susan Collins arrives for the Senate Republicans weekly lunch on June 9, 2020 in Washington DC. “In fairness to the American people, who will either be re-electing the President or selecting a new one, the decision on a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court should be made by the president who is elected on November 3rd,” Collins said in a statement Saturday. Still, she hasn’t said what she would do if a vote for Ginsburg’s replacement came to the floor before Election Day. In the old days, a senator who bucked their party might get a stern talking-to from the Senate majority leader or an angry phone call from the president. These days, it all happens on Twitter, with legions of angry Trump supporters eager to help castigate the rebels. But Collins has sided more with her own party in the Trump era. Even as she voted against ACA repeal in 2017, Collins voted more in line with the Republican position that year than at any other point in her career, according to a CNN analysis. And after nearly four years of Trump openly flouting both norms and laws, there are times where voters have wanted Collins to be like more like Margaret Chase Smith, the legendary Maine Republican senator who stood up to Sen. Joe McCarthy in the middle of America’s red scare — and whom Collins considers a role model. “Margaret Chase Smith ... I don’t think she would have put up with Trump at all,” said Calderwood. “Hand-wringing isn’t helpful. I know [Collins has] got it in her, because I’ve seen her. She’s very strong and tough and independent when she wishes to be, and she’s very smart.” Will you help keep Vox free for all? The United States is in the middle of one of the most consequential presidential elections of our lifetimes. It’s essential that all Americans are able to access clear, concise information on what the outcome of the election could mean for their lives, and the lives of their families and communities. That is our mission at Vox. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. If you haven’t, please consider helping everyone understand this presidential election: Contribute today from as little as $3.
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Who is a terrorist, actually?
Anti-racist and anti-facist protesters orgranized by F.L.O.W.E.R, a frontline organization based in Atlanta to combat racism, face off against far-right militias and white pride organizations near Stone Mountain Park in downtown Stone Mountain, Georgia, on August 15, 2020. | Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images The problem with labeling your least-favorite protest group as “terrorists.” When I write about the threat of white supremacist terrorism, I often receive complaints from readers that I am focusing on the wrong problem and that my articles are ill-informed and misleading (I’m putting the complaints politely). Instead of focusing on white supremacists, they argue, I should instead write about the “real” terrorists like antifa and Black Lives Matter. Their opinions are backed up by statements from the police and Trump administration officials and pictures of burning cities. The terrorism label, for them, is a way of distinguishing who is in the wrong. Brian Jenkins, a leading scholar of terrorism, observed in 1981, “Terrorism is what the bad guys do.” When it comes to Black Lives Matter, there’s no credible case for labeling it a terrorist organization. One analysis of the Black Lives Matter protests found that 93 percent were peaceful, and some of the violent incidents at the rallies were simply opportunistic vandalism. Most of the protest leaders have tried to stop looting and other violence, recognizing this is counterproductive as well as wrong. Moreover, Black Lives Matter is an open movement with a host of organizations participating along with self-proclaimed supporters rather than a tight group with a defined membership. Thus, labeling the movement as a whole as violent is false. But not all violence is terrorism, either. In many instances, even those who do actively promote and use violence don’t merit the label “terrorist.” So what about individuals and groups that have been credibly linked to violence in Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, and other cities? Where does antifa fit in? Or right-wing militia-type groups like Patriot Prayer? How about individuals such as the Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests shooter? Should we call all of these people terrorists? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think. What does “terrorism” actually mean? It’s easy to dodge this question and conclude that there is no real agreement on the definition of terrorism. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter, as the tired old saying goes — an argument one still hears walking the halls of the United Nations. As my colleague Chris Meserole and I have pointed out, even close US allies don’t agree with the United States — or even with one another — as to which groups are terrorists. However, serious analysts such as Bruce Hoffman and Boaz Ganor as well as US statutes and various government agencies have all tried to define terrorism. Important for all these efforts is an attempt to put aside the question of the justness of the cause — whether someone is the “bad guy” — and focus on the goals and actions of the perpetrator. So one can favor a cause (national liberation, say) but still label the violence used to achieve it as terrorism. Conversely, one can oppose a cause without considering those advocating for it to be terrorists. Serious terrorism definitions have several factors in common, most of which are self-evident but a few that require a bit more explanation. First, terrorism involves violence or the threat of it: Marches, protests, and similar peaceful activities do not meet the criteria. Stone-throwing or other low-level forms of violence, including street brawls and physical assaults, could technically be counted, but it’s best to maintain a high bar when using the terrorism label. Otherwise, major terror attacks like the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — in which a gunman killed 11 people in the deadliest attack on Jews on American soil — get diluted by numerous non-lethal events. Second, terrorism is inherently political. The targets and motivation need to be linked to a broader cause or ideology. It need not be a wholly rational or achievable cause. But having such a cause is what distinguishes terrorism from crime, personal passion, or other common reasons for violence. Third, terrorism is perpetrated by non-state actors. That’s a political science term that basically means anyone who’s not acting as the agent of a recognized government. Soldiers and police officers, for instance, are state actors. Members of paramilitary groups, militias, private corporations, and non-governmental organizations are all non-state actors. To be clear: There is no moral difference between a state agent such as a soldier planting a bomb in a marketplace and killing dozens of civilians versus this same action being done by a non-state actor, but it is important for our definitions. The United States also tries to carve out “clandestine agents” of the state — such as when Libyan intelligence officers bombed Pan Am 103 in 1988, killing 270 innocent people — as part of its terrorism definition, which further muddies the waters. A fourth criterion — and one that is highly relevant to this discussion — is that terrorism is “designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target,” in Bruce Hoffman’s words. The purpose of the violence, accordingly, is not just (or even primarily) to hurt, kill, or destroy the immediate target, but rather to convey a message. It is this psychological effect that gives terrorism its power, inspiring fear in individuals far from the blast zone, fomenting civil wars, reshaping foreign policy by producing an over-reaction, and otherwise having far more impact than the death toll and destruction of the initial attack itself. Part of the psychological effect is also a high degree of intentionality. Shootings at an anti-racism rally may scare others in another city, but for it to count as terrorism the shootings needed to be intended to have a broader effect — the purpose of violence at the rally, in other words, is to shape opinion far outside the city in question. It’s not enough for the violence to inadvertently scare (“terrorize”) people far away from it. Rather, such fear must be the goal. There’s another commonly used criterion that involves who is being targeted by the violence: Many terrorism definitions require that the targets be civilians or noncombatants. If an attack targets military forces on the battlefield in the middle of a war, for instance, it might not be considered terrorism, but rather a regular military or guerrilla operation. But this gets complicated really quickly: What if it’s an attack on military forces, but it takes place far outside a war zone? What if there’s no war at all, and the soldiers are just stationed at a military base somewhere? Take, for example, al-Qaeda’s suicide bombing of USS Cole, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer,while the ship was refueling off the coast of Yemen. The attack killed 17 sailors, but did so outside a designated war zone. Whether that incident counts as a terrorist attack could vary depending on how this criterion is applied. And what about police officers? They’re not soldiers, but nor are they pure civilians like shoppers at a Walmart are. This adds to the fuzziness. Terrorism definitions are muddy, and there is legitimate disagreement as to which deeds qualify. However, some factors, especially the intentional psychological effect, are important when considering how to categorize recent unrest and violence in the United States. Examining the facts — not the rhetoric Let’s apply these definitional criteria to the individuals and groups in question here. The marches, counter-marches, and most of the violence surrounding them in Portland and other cities are certainly political (with the exception of some of the opportunistic looting and property destruction), and involve non-state actors: two boxes checked. After that, however, things get more fraught. As mentioned above, there is no evidence Black Lives Matter either advocates for or engages in violence. So right there, it’s disqualified for the terrorism label. The violent label better fits some supporters of antifa, which is short for “anti-fascist” and is not a group but rather a loose network of like-minded individuals. Some self-proclaimed members, often anarchists, vandalize property, and many go to rallies to fight with (they would say defend against) white supremacists and others they label fascists. The Anti-Defamation League notes that a lot of antifa activity occurs online, often in the form of harassing right-wing extremists and white supremacists and doxxing them — outing them to their employers and communities. But the ADL also says that: “While some antifa use their fists, other violent tactics include throwing projectiles, including bricks, crowbars, homemade slingshots, metal chains, water bottles, and balloons filled with urine and feces.” Because of this violence, they deserve to be rejected and condemned (and, when they use violence, arrested). However, this threat is blown way out of proportion. Claims that antifa is devilishly cunning or crazily violent are common, leading to many conspiracy theories — President Trump claims, for example, that they have weaponized soup cans. It’s gotten so outlandish that jokingly comparing antifa’s dastardly antics with those used by the Roadrunner to trick Wile E. Coyote in the Looney Tunes cartoons has become a meme on Twitter. I am sick and tired of having peaceful protests ruined by thugs dropping grand pianos onto the heads of law enforcement officers and then playing Frédérick Chopin's The Funeral March on the piano keys that replaced their teeth— BDG | Yohosie (@yohosiefgc) June 10, 2020 But antifa in the United States was not linked to deadly violence until August 29, when self-proclaimed antifa member Michael Reinoehl allegedly shot a right-wing activist who was a member of Patriot Prayer. (Before this killing, a antifa supporter attacked an ICE facility armed with a rifle.) However, even when they use violence, antifa’s targets are local — they do not seem to be intentionally trying to cause a broader psychological effect. Reinoehl, for example, claimed he was simply providing “security” at Black Lives Matter protests (on his own initiative, it seems) and said that he shot the Patriot Prayer member in self-defense, believing he and a friend were about to be stabbed. In an interview with Vicebefore he was killed by police seeking to arrest him, Reinoehl claimed, “I could have sat there and watched them kill a friend of mine of color. But I wasn’t going to do that.” The ICE facility attacker may have been suicidal, and reports so far suggest his focus was just on that particular facility. In neither case were they seeking a broader psychological effect. Elevating this violence to terrorism, as President Trump has called for, exaggerates its scope and scale. As Colin Clarke and Michael Kenney argue, “Though sucker-punching someone in the face is certainly violent, it’s not terrorism.” If antifa transitions and Reinoehl-type shooters become more regular or are embraced by more within the network, then the terrorism question should be reconsidered. This is especially so if future violence is intended to have a far-reaching psychological effect. However, the amorphous nature of the movement makes any designation difficult in practice as it is not clear where antifa begins and ends and who, if anyone, is responsible for its violent activities beyond the individuals in question. Patriot Prayer is a group with a political cause — it’s pro-Trump and anti-left — and it engages in violence. Patriot Prayer has connections to law enforcement and white supremacists and to the hate group Proud Boys but insists it rejects racism. Its members often go to rallies, armed, seeking conflict with members of antifa. So far, though, these clashes have not been lethal, though it has threatened opponents with “bullets put into your head.” Although terrorism includes the threat of violence as well as violence itself, given the level of vitriol on the internet today, such threats don’t justify calling the entire group a terrorist group. Like with antifa, when Patriot Prayer members are violent, their goals and targets do not seem intended to create a broad psychological effect. On Facebook, Patriot Prayer describes itself as “encouraging the country to fight for freedom at a local level using faith in God to guide us in the right direction.” Its focus is local and its members are largely about fighting the other side in the streets. So for Patriot Prayer, the terrorism label similarly doesn’t work. Finally, there’s Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with murder in the fatal shooting of at least two people during a night of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in late August. Rittenhouse was at least loosely tied to a political cause, casting himself as a defender of law and order against violence associated with marches protesting the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back seven times by a police officer as he was being put into a police car. Rittenhouse in his social media posts described himself as pro-police and claimed to a Daily Caller reporter that he traveled to Kenosha to protect businesses and help anyone who was hurt. Currently available evidence suggests no intentionality on Rittenhouse’s part to cause a broader psychological effect. He seems to simply have seen himself as doing his part to help out law enforcement — despite not actually being a professional, trained law enforcement official and being armed with a powerful assault-style weapon. Why does the terrorism label matter, beyond semantics? Part of it, of course, is simply a question of demonization. Taking away the “terrorism” label forces us to think more clearly and critically about why the groups or individuals are acting as they are. More important, though, it affects which agencies and government authorities are invoked to deal with these groups and individuals. Protests, even violent ones, are traditionally a matter for the police and, if they need backup, the National Guard. Terrorism, in contrast, involves the FBI and other national security agencies. In a post-9/11 world, terrorism is considered a grave threat that must be crushed. When President Trump uses the term terrorism as a label for largely peaceful protesters, he is abusing the word and making an overreaction more likely. The cities affected by the protests and the nation as a whole should condemn and try to stop any violence while encouraging peaceful demonstrations. However, using the terrorism label obscures more than it clarifies, creating a misleading impression of the demonstrations and the proper response. Daniel Byman is a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. Follow him on Twitter @dbyman. Help keep Vox free for all Millions turn to Vox each month to understand what’s happening in the news, from the coronavirus crisis to a racial reckoning to what is, quite possibly, the most consequential presidential election of our lifetimes. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. But our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources. Even when the economy and the news advertising market recovers, your support will be a critical part of sustaining our resource-intensive work. If you have already contributed, thank you. 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The United States Is a Disaster Area
If you are reading this in the United States, you are experiencing a disaster—maybe more than one. Hurricane Sally hammered Alabama and the Florida panhandle last week, submerging homes and leaving tens of thousands without power. The West Coast is still wreathed in smoke from its worst fire season ever by acres burned, during which entire towns have been incinerated. Coronavirus cases are spiking in Wisconsin, but major disasters are layered on top of the coronavirus pandemic everywhere. “For the first time in American history, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, the Seminole Tribe of Florida and five territories have been approved for major-disaster declarations for the same event,” a FEMA spokesperson told me, via email. The entire country is literally a disaster area.[Read: Two disasters are exponentially worse than one]Disasters have been trending upward for decades, but 2020 is a very bad year. After forecasters exhausted the official list of alphabetical storm names, they moved onto the Greek alphabet. Subtropical Storm Alpha petered out over the weekend, and Tropical Storm Beta is now menacing the Gulf Coast. We still have more than two months to go in hurricane season. Twice as many disasters caused more than $1 billion in damage each in the 2010s than in the 2000s, according to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But “that really has to be adjusted for the size of the population and the size of the economy," Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Boston University, says. He’s done the math, and even after adjusting for growing gross domestic product, the rise in disasters is still significant.Castle Snider, 8, watches the Bobcat Fire engulf the hillside behind his home in California. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / Getty)Disasters are by definition sudden and terrible, but their causes are typically complex and multifarious. One cause of their rise is climate change, which worsens both western wildfires and eastern hurricanes. Forest management, planning and zoning policies that encourage sprawl into forests and floodplains, and aging infrastructure all play a role too. Systemic racism and deepening inequality mean many Americans don’t have the resources to avoid or bounce back from a disaster. Some rightly fear the police or government officials to whom they are told to turn for help.Disasters also give rise to other disasters. Heat waves dry out soil, creating drought. Fires destroy the vegetation holding soil together, causing mudslides. Climate change raises sea levels, triggering coastal flooding as estuaries back up with water. Fires and floods force people into shelters, spreading the coronavirus.The ruins of homes destroyed in Talent, Oregon (ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty )Researchers who study this tangled web of crises call them “cascading disasters”—disasters that trigger other disasters like falling dominoes. As the climate warms, they are becoming increasingly common. Many risk analysts, though, still treat each disaster as a discrete event, according to Amir AghaKouchak at UC Irvine and Farshid Vahedifard at Mississippi State University.The interwoven causality and relentless pace of disasters in 2020 is changing the way many of us think about them. Instead of individual episodes that impinge upon a normal course of events, like bombs lobbed by an angry god, disasters are an ongoing and possibly permanent texture to our lives. Not an event, but an era.[Read: The West has never felt so small]Vahedifard says that in a time of cascading disasters, the United States should be spending much more money to prevent and prepare for them. As an engineer, he’s particularly concerned about the nation’s infrastructure, which has been given a grade of D+ by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Our dams, bridges, public-transit networks, drinking-water systems, and energy infrastructure are falling apart. The deadly 2018 Camp Fire was caused by a worn-out hook on a high-voltage transmission tower, which broke, dropping a sparking line onto bone-dry vegetation. The hook was likely 100 years old.The evacuation center at the Jackson County Fairgrounds in Central Point, Oregon. (PAULA BRONSTEIN / AFP / Getty)But Vahedifard says that when he asked engineering students across the U.S. to give the country’s infrastructure a grade, the average was a B. It's the civil-engineering equivalent of “shifting baselines” in ecology—a phenomenon in which people don’t notice long-term environmental change, because of our tendency to compare current conditions to our own lived experience. These young engineers have grown up in a potholed, crumbling, rusting world. It is normal to them. And, Vahedifard says, they will likely “underestimate the value of improving things” as a result.Humans cover the Earth in part because we are so very adaptable. But our mental flexibility means that we can also adapt to life within multiple ongoing disasters. We get used to wearing masks or working from home or perusing empty store shelves. We get used to seeing guys with military-style rifles wandering around downtown. Checking the air quality before we take the dog out becomes a habit. We stop clocking the daily pandemic deaths, because the number is always roughly 1,000. It happens so quickly.Streets in Gulf Shores, Alabama, flooded when Hurricane Sally passed through. (Joe Raedle / Getty)Cascading disasters could become the new normal, the background to our lives. Or we could try to stop the dominoes from falling. But if we are to make the kind of sweeping systematic changes that could stop climate change from getting worse, end the truly dystopian inequities in our country, and crush the pandemic before hundreds of thousands more are dead, we cannot allow our baselines to shift. We cannot forget that these are disasters.Just this moment, sitting at my desk writing, I felt and smelled a gust of smoky wind press against my office window. My heart sank as I imagined that wind feeding oxygen to the wildfires that still rage in my area. Come to think of it, I did get an emergency alert about a “red flag warning” for extreme fire danger on my phone this afternoon. I had forgotten about it. I get so many these days.
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