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False Reports of Terrorism Spell Bad News


Like everything else in our society, the war on terror has been rationalized and dissected into several different compartments.  You’ve heard all the excitement about the airlines, with their pat-downs and body scans, and newly implemented screening policies.  Then in another cubby hole you’ve got the issues with Guantanamo and the prisoner trials.  And in another sphere you’ve got all the various individuals charged with supporting and assisting terrorist activities.

Here’s another category to add to those ones:  False reports of terrorism.  If you didn’t know, it’s currently a crime in several states to make a false report of terrorist acts or threats to the police and other authorities.  In fact, it’s usually counted as a felony- complete with prison time and steep fines.

For example, one Chicago man received three counts of lying to FBI agents about an alleged terrorist plot.  The 20-year old Chicago resident had told the FBI that he was approached regarding a “homegrown jihad”, and even supplied a fake letter to them about joining a military group.

The Chicago case mentioned here was based on the crime of lying to police.  Some states such as Michigan have laws specifically addressing false reports of terrorism.  As an example of how these statutes look like, here’s some language from Michigan’s “False Report of Terrorism” statute:

“A person is guilty… of making a false report of terrorism if the person… knowingly makes a false report of an act of terrorism and communicates the false report to any other person, knowing the report is false”.

According to this Michigan law, the crime, which is a felony, can be punished by imprisonment for up to 20 years, or a fine of under $20,000, or both.  Now that’s a pretty serious crime.  The most important element in this law is the “communication” requirement- the false report must be communicated to another person, with knowledge that the information is false.  This is very close to the way libel and slander laws work.

Other states have enacted similar laws.  New York’s version, the Terrorism Preparedness Act, punishes false reporters with a seven year prison sentence.  Also, even if you didn’t plant a bomb or engage in other violent activities, the New York statute labels such culprits as “violent felons”.  Apparently when it comes to the war on terror, even words can be considered as violence.

Now, for all you sticklers out there, please note that this crime is distinct from making false statements in a terrorism investigation.  A false statement is generally classified as perjury if it is committed in a court of law.  On the other hand, the crime we’re talking about has to do with making false reports about an incident or threat of terrorism.

That’s a very big distinction, because pretty much everyone knows that it’s bad news to offer false statements in a court of law.  On the other hand, not everyone might be aware that is a serious felony to accuse someone of committing a terrorist act.  (And on another note, these laws have nothing to do with the more dubious allegations circulating on the net about fake terror alerts that have been supposedly orchestrated by the Obama administration or other presidents).

So, now that we’ve compartmentalized the different aspects of the war on terror, let’s try and put this humpty-dumpty back together again.  Is it possible for a TSA airline worker to be found guilty of making a false report on terrorism?  Absolutely!  If they perform an action that violates a state law like the one from Michigan, then a felony has been committed, plain and simple.  And no one is immune to the law on this subject, really.  Even big-time media corporations such as Fox News and CNN News have been accused of spreading false terrorism reports.  Let’s be careful about we say and what kinds of fingers we point.  Falsely accusing your annoying neighbor of terrorism is not a good way to solve personal problems.

I have to agree with what the Chicago FBI had said.  False reports of terrorism are a terrible waste of time and resources.  Arguably, that’s a very practical aim of false terror report laws- to prevent unnecessary expenditures of government forces.  Another goal of such laws is to protect people from the very serious consequences that come with being labeled as a terrorist.  You can lose your whole reputation if you are even slightly associated with the word terrorism.

But also, I think that another, more important purpose of such laws is to prevent the spread of panic and hysteria associated with terror attacks.  An audience can quickly turn into a mob if someone falsely yells “fire!” in a small movie theater (which is also a criminal violation by the way).  In the same way, someone who makes a claim of terrorism has the potential to set off a veritable wildfire.  And that’s exactly the goal of any terror attack- to instill a sense of fear in the general population.  So if a false terror report can accomplish the same thing as a real terror report, then in my opinion it makes sense to make it a crime.


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