Chemical Attacks: Assault or Terrorism?

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The Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether a federal anti-terrorism law should have been applied to the case of a woman who attacked her husband’s mistress with toxic chemicals. According to CBS News.com:

“The high court on Tuesday agreed to hear an appeal from Carol Anne Bond of Lansdale, Pa. She was sentenced to six years in prison after admitting to trying to harm her husband’s mistress, Myrlinda Haynes, with toxic chemicals that she stole from her workplace. Bond has been in prison since her arrest in June 2007. Prosecutors charged her with a federal chemical weapons violation, a law that Bond’s lawyers said was intended to deal with rogue states and terrorists, not a woman in a love triangle.”

Was this an act of terrorism? Though most Americans think of terrorist threats as coming from foreigners, there are plenty of domestic “ordinary citizen” terrorists.

In fact, instead of being “united against terrorism” in the weeks and months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Americans actively participated in terrorism by calling in bomb threats and anthrax hoaxes. From mid-October to early November 2001 alone, Postal Service inspectors received more than 8,600 anthrax-related threats—made by everyone from police officers to blue-collar office workers.

Notable American terrorists include Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph; Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; anthrax scientist Bruce Ivins; D.C. snipers John Williams and John Muhammad, and others.

There is no universally-agreed upon definition of terrorism, though David E. Long’s book The Anatomy of Terrorism offers this description:

“(T)he threat or use of violence for political purposes by individuals or groups… when such actions are intended to shock, stun, or intimidate a group wider than the immediate victims.”

If this definition of terrorism is applied, it seems likely that Bond’s sentence would be overturned. Bond’s attack was not political in nature, nor was the assault intended to intimidate a larger group of people (except, perhaps, any of her husband’s other potential mistresses).

Bond was instead prosecuted under the Chemical Weapons Convention Implementation Act of 1998, which prohibits “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans and animals.” A judge ruled that the Act could be applied to Bond or anyone else who “uses a toxic chemical for other than peaceful purposes.”

The main justification for prosecuting Bond under terrorism laws was her use of chemicals in the attack, though by that criterion terrorism charges could be leveled against anyone from poisoners to Bethany Storro, the woman who recently faked an acid attack on herself. It thus seems likely that the Supreme Court will find that anti-terrorism statutes should not have been applied to Bond’s case.