On the same day that George Floyd’s life was celebrated with a magnificent eulogy by Reverend Al Sharpton, which was also the day after we learned that another black man had his neck crushed by police officers in Tacoma, which was also the day we learned that one of the men who hunted down a black jogger in Atlanta sent that young man from this world with a racial slur, President Trump tweeted a letter from one of his former lawyers, John Dowd, that called the peaceful protesters in front of the White House “terrorists”.
Just as we think that our president has reached the nadir of his creeping authoritarianism, he goes further. Trump is a hater; the list of his hates is long and varied — Muslims to Mexicans to Media to Murkowski to Mitt. On and on it goes. But calling peaceful protesters exercising their constitutional rights to dissent “terrorists” is a whole new, ominous page from the authoritarian playbook.
Let’s start with the rehabilitation of John Dowd. He was in there somewhere after Michael Cohen and Mark Kasowitz and Don McGahn and Ty Cobb, but before Giuliani and diGenova and Cipollone and Dershowitz. Dowd was the guy shouting about the investigation at lunch at that fancy restaurant near the White House. He was the guy who resigned (or left by “mutual agreement”) shortly after he told Robert Mueller why he was trying to keep the president from testifying: “I’m not going to sit there and let him look like an idiot. And you publish that transcript, because everything leaks in Washington, and the guys overseas are going to say, ‘I told you he was an idiot. I told you he was a goddamn dumbbell. What are we dealing with this idiot for?’” He then told Trump, as Bob Woodward reported in his book, “Don’t testify. It’s either that or an orange jumpsuit” for perjury.
Trump told Dowd, “I’ll be a real good witness.”
“You are not a good witness,” Dowd replied, and left the next day.
Now, in Trump’s telling, Dowd is a “Super Star lawyer” and “respected Marine.” Dowd, a retired captain, was responding to the statement of retired four-star James Mattis; but in Trump World, the supportive Dowd outranks not only Mattis but the host of four stars speaking out in grave fear for the preservation of our constitutional order and the misuse of the military in the “domestic battlespace,” i.e. against the American people.
Terrorism is real and not a term to be thrown around lightly. When 19 hijackers flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed 3,000 innocent people, that was terrorism. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and killed 168 innocent people, that was terrorism. Terrorism is defined in the United States Code, divided into international and domestic terrorism. Domestic terrorism “involves acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; that appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” By any definition, there was no terrorism on the part of these protesters.
John Dowd was not at the peaceful protest in Lafayette Park on Monday, but presumably he could watch it on television. Before the curfew began, mounted police and riot police shot tear gas and forcibly moved the protesters off H Street so that the space could be cleared for a photo opportunity. You can replay the footage as much as you want. Breaching a curfew, which did not happen in any event, is not “intimidation or coercion” through acts dangerous to human life. And looters, who were not part of that demonstration in any attempt, are opportunistic criminals without any agenda to coerce policy. The only coercion and intimidation that occurred on that day was ordered against civilians by Attorney General Barr.
Thankfully, none of those peaceful protesters was severely injured or killed, at least that day. No one was charged with terrorism. But there are precedents for equating protest with terrorism and they are terrifying.
Last week I filed a case under the Torture Victim Protection Act on behalf of a peaceful protester in Egypt who was shot and tortured for two years for blogging about a massacre. The case was brought against the former Egyptian prime minister, who now lives in the US and is a senior official of the International Monetary Fund. What was my client charged with in Egypt and sentenced to life in prison? Terrorism.
This week, President Duterte of the Philippines is signing a law that allows dissenters to be charged with terrorism. Putin regularly prosecutes left-wing opponents for membership in non-existent “terrorist organizations,” unless he has them murdered first. Orban in Hungary; Ortega in Nicaragua; Erdogan in Turkey — they and others equate dissent with terrorism. Over time, this big lie inures civil society to the distinction and the torture dungeons fill up, as they did in Argentina and Chile and Cambodia and Uganda and the Soviet Union.
Mr Dowd, you were right the first time. Trump can’t tell the truth and the more the world sees, the more they view him as an idiot. When he and his henchmen cleared H Street, they were lying again; the world was watching and they were not fighting terrorism.
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