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‘NATO 3’ case puts state definition of ‘terrorism’ to the test

Updated: July 14, 2012 6:48AM

Aperson can do a lot of damage with a glass bottle filled with gasoline and a match, sometimes known as a Molotov cocktail, and the last thing I want to do is imply otherwise.

Throw one into a police station, and you’ve got a very dangerous situation on your hands.

If someone plots to do something like that, actually taking steps to carry it out, then they’ve engaged in a serious criminal act for which they must be prosecuted.

But does it make them a terrorist?

I’m still waiting to be convinced.

Three out-of-state men accused of plotting to firebomb police stations and other political targets in Chicago during last month’s NATO Summit appeared ever-so-briefly in Cook County Criminal Court on Tuesday to be told that they have been indicted by a grand jury.

The new charges were not announced in court, but their defense lawyers said they expect county prosecutors to move ahead under the same untested state anti-terrorist statute used when they were arrested.

Afterward the heavily shackled defendants were led back to jail where they are being held in protective custody, the extra precautions owing to their status as accused terrorists.

Outside the court, Thomas Anthony Durkin, lawyer for defendant Jared Chase, 27, of New Hampshire, derided the prosecution’s case and the law under which it was brought.

“This is not a terrorism case. This is a ridiculous terrorism case charged under a ridiculous statute,” said Durkin.

I’m not calling the case ridiculous, but as Durkin correctly noted, the “mere charge of terrorism ups the ante.”

The word alone carries connotations that increase our fear factor and therefore our suspicion of the defendants.

Conspiracy to commit terrorism sounds a whole lot worse than illegal possession of explosives, although the maximum penalty is actually higher for the latter.

This is the first case brought under the Illinois anti-terrorism statute, which was enacted after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

The law begins with a preamble of “legislative findings” that reference those attacks and cite a need to “complement federal laws in the fight against terrorism.”

“The legislature further finds that due to the grave nature and global reach of terrorism that a comprehensive law encompassing state criminal statutes and strong civil remedies is needed,” the statute states.

There are those who would question the premise alone, arguing that if there were a real terrorism case to be made, then federal authorities would be eager to bring charges of their own under federal law.

That makes some sense to me. In this instance, federal authorities are believed to have passed up an opportunity to take the case after reviewing the evidence, which shouldn’t be seen as any indication that they didn’t support bringing state charges.

Under the state law, a terrorist act can be anything from an attack on individuals to disabling a communication system or destroying a computer network. It can even include “any act that causes substantial damage to or destruction of livestock or crops.”

The so-called “NATO 3” seem to have been charged under a provision in the statute that applies to causing damage or destruction to a government building.

The law further defines a terrorist as “any person who engages or is about to engage in a terrorist act with the intent to intimidate or coerce a significant portion of a civilian population.”

I assume that’s why prosecutors under Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez made special note in their original charging document that one of the defendants allegedly stated “the city doesn’t know what it’s in for” and that “after NATO, the city will never be the same.” In theory, that could show intent.

The state’s attorney’s office will say only that the case was carefully reviewed before charges were filed and that it fits all the requirements of the state terrorism statute.

Defense lawyers said they have not been informed whether secret recordings were made of their clients by two undercover police officers who had infiltrated the protester group, although it’s believed there indeed are tapes.

Those tapes should help tell us whether this is really a terrorism case or something more mundane.

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