The Power of Language

On October 1, a suicide bomb went off on the campus of the University of Oklahoma at Norman. The only death was the person who was carrying the bomb, Joel Henry Hinrichs III. There were no injuries.

Both Federal and local law enforcement officials have been investigating the crime, and so far they have been very cautious about the information they release to the news media. This has generated a fair amount of frustration from pundits who see the incident as a clear attempt at an act of terrorism. The police should simply give voice to the obvious, they say. A good example of this is given by Firehand at Irons in the Fire.

“As to the disclaimers from the feds(“No, no, no evidence of anything like terrorism”), they do not give me a great deal of confidence.”

Speaking as someone who once worked in law enforcement, I can say with confidence that the police are required to operate under rules and restrictions that are alien to the general public. Speaking in the broadest possible sense, if you haven’t been in the trenches then you just don’t have a clue.

One thing that seems rather difficult for civilians is the concept that law enforcement use labels to determine the scope of a crime. These classifications are very important because they are shorthand instructions that guide the direction of the investigation. For example, a serial killer and a contract killer both kill lots of people, but the crimes are essentially different.

In the former case, local and State law enforcement agencies are probably going to be responsible for the investigation. It would actually be illegal for the Feds to get involved as long as the perp didnít cross State borders during the commission of his crimes.

As far as a murderer working for an organized crime family is concerned, the Feds have to be involved and in charge of the case. This happens even if the hit man never left his home town.

Pundits insist that any attempt to kill a large number of people in a public place is an act of terrorism, and the police should automatically and immediately call it so. This is a simplistic view, and it would be very irresponsible if the police did this.

In law enforcement circles, “terrorism” means that there is an organization aiding and abetting the perp. Federal agencies with national jurisdiction are necessarily in charge and guiding the investigation. The focus is on gathering information on the terrorist cells in order to arrest as many of the people involved as possible, and the ultimate aim is to destroy any ability they have for future acts of terrorism. This will take a huge effort, possibly lasting years, as an entire alphabet soup of agencies move to gather and share intelligence in the course of building their case.

If Hinrichs acted alone then heís just a spree killer, and not a very successful one. The focus of the investigation is to gather and disarm any dangerous devices he might have left behind, and to investigate the ways and means used to buy the materials and build the bombs. There is still a great deal of work to be done, but the size of the investigation will be tiny compared to the example in the previous paragraph. The urgency will certainly be much less because the danger is largely past while an existing terrorist organization represents a very clear potential threat.

Itís also important to understand that law enforcement officials are under a great deal of scrutiny by the media when it comes to high profile cases. Distinguished careers with decades of exemplary service to the public could be destroyed by simply chatting with a reporter and voicing a few unfounded suspicions. Most bloggers use pseudonyms in order to avoid problems with their employer, so they should be the people who have the most sympathy for the police. Instead they seem to be the most vocal critics.

According to Michelle Malkin, the police in Norman, OK will have a live press conference a few hours after this essay was posted. We will find out what they have to say then, but Iím sure that many pundits will howl long and hard if the conclusion is that this wasnít an act of terrorism because Hinrichs was acting alone.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Language”

  1. Iím sure that many pundits will howl long and hard if the conclusion is that this wasnít an act of terrorism because Hinrichs was acting alone.

    Or they’ll keep going on about undiscovered accomplices, if there is evidence for them or not.

  2. James,

    The DoJ issued guidelines for law enforcement on the difference between the old use of RICO powers and Patriot Act RICO cases. The main difference is that the first priority if there is evidence of a broad criminal conspiracy to commit “terrorist” type acts is to trace the organizational network and stop further attacks, rather than collecting evidence for a criminal prosecution as in a mafia RICO investigation. The pdf files are at the DoJ web sites.

    Ralf. If you’re European, you should make an effort to actually read the guidelines that define the entire legal process before mistakenly assuming the FBI has authority remotely resembling Statsi or MI5. I realize this might seem like a typically American concept, even naive, but the only difference between a team of Federal agents and a terrorist syndicate is the body of law that authorizes and empowers the former to act in an official capacity for the public weal. This is why Federal auditors (who also undertake special investigations) have case coded id, so a lawyer or average person or FBI agent can verify their legal authority independently…

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