This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
It’s the Government’s Say (Part 1): On the Topic of Variable “State Speech Act”
The difficulty that remains most intact as I continue working on this project is to remain truly objective. Luckily, the codebook is detailed in how to dissect the information from source documents and I remain in check by my partner. Beyond obtaining the validity of the project, however, I often find myself hesitant on tagging cases with the value of “state speech act.”
By nature of the variable, state speech act is defined purely based on the government’s definition of an individual. For exact definition, the codebook spells out this variable under 3 circumstances: the individual has been identified of a member of a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) or political group and acted in this manner, the individual has been identified as part of one of these groups, even if the case does not appear to be socio-politically motivated. In summary, the government often has complete say on inclusion of cases based on a group identification. Ryan Reilly (2018) discusses the easy ability to tag someone as a terrorist if they discuss a designated foreign domestic terrorist group (FTO) on the internet, but there are many difficulties of doing so for domestic groups are as the current laws are do not give much insight into these groups as foreign ones.
By nature of the project, there is obvious flaw in the justice system’s means of prosecution. One of the goals of this research is to identify how these specific crimes follow a pattern of “otheredness”, often driven by race or participation in certain terrorist organizations. Therefore, when coding for an individual I believe should clearly be excluded, the state gets final say in this decision. For example, I am in the processing of coding a case for Michael Bruce Messer, a man who was arrested and sentenced for two counts of knowingly possessing in and affecting commerce, a firearm and ammunition, all of which had been shipped and transported in interstate and foreign commerce. Although in this indictment there was no mention of this, the DOJ mentions his want to join ISIS in a press release on his sentencing. Now the personal hesitation of this resulted from a possibility that the weapon had no correlation with his post online. That could still be true, however, since the government made a clear connection in this article about his want to be a part of this FTO in relation to the charge, this deems a state speech act and inclusion in the project.
While there is an obvious need for the government to clearly state laws and determine aspects to correctly and systematically address crime, there are times such as this case where their say seems ambiguous. I am not arguing the fact that Messer committed crime and could possibly commit much worse based on his want to join a terrorist organization, but I do question how we define and change our opinion on the individuals we code based on simple single sentence additions and descriptions by the DOJ.
Reilly, Ryan J. “There’s A Good Reason Feds Don’t Call White Guys Terrorists, Says DOJ Domestic Terror Chief.” Huffington Post. January 11, 2018, Online edition, sec. Politics.