Donald Trump condemned a spate of attempted mail bombings this week as “terrorizing acts.” And his Justice Department today charged a suspect with five federal crimes, including interstate transportation of an explosive and threats against former presidents.
Announcing the charges against Cesar Sayoc of Florida, Attorney General Jeff Sessions characterized the mailings, which were directed at prominent critics of Trump, as “political violence”—which is a common way of describing terrorism.
So why wasn’t Sayoc charged with terrorism?
There’s a popular perception that investigators are quicker to label violent crimes by Muslims “terrorism” than they are, say, right-wing extremist violence. This perception is well founded, and the approach is morally inconsistent, but the reasons aren’t necessarily related to racism.
In the United States, the most frequently used terrorism-related charge, by far, is for providing “material support” to a foreign terrorist organization. Support can mean anything from offering money or advice to showing up in person to help a group that is on the State Department’s designated list of terrorist organizations.
These days, the organization at issue tends to be ISIS, though the same charge could also theoretically apply to offering support to the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out a deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 13 people.