Gangbangers as Terrorists


JANUARY 8, 2008


By Dennis Byrne


Posted in Our Columns on January 08, 2008

The shooting of a 41-year-old Chicago mother on the South Side evoked a creative idea: Treat gang members as domestic terrorists.


Said Chicago Tribune reader “Welcome to Chicago ”:


Laws should be adjusted to limit the rights of gang members. Gang members are domestic terrorists and should be handled using a higher level of force as well as vigilant strategic planning….Of course we care about everyone’s civil rights and rights as a citizen in this country. [But] as soon as an individual or group has proved that after several documentations by police that he is a gang member, then his or her rights should be similar to a terrorist.


Interesting. If we treated gang members as terrorists, perhaps we should send them, without trial, to detention (preferably on a boiling hot Caribbean island) as “enemy combatants.” Question them without a lawyer present. A little water boarding might even straighten a few of them out, or at least cough up some valuable information could save innocent lives. Like that of the slain woman, Margaret Lee, who was shot several times as she was leaving a wedding reception early Saturday.


There is some appeal to the idea. By some estimates, gang members commit more than a half million serious crimes annually. The more than 24,000 gangs operating within the country are responsible for much of the retail distribution of the cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and other illegal drugs being distributed throughout the country, according to the National Drug Threat Assessment.


The crushing effects of gangs range far beyond murder. “Gang presence and intimidation, and the organized and repetitive nature of the crimes that gangs commit, has a pernicious effect on the free flow of interstate commercial activities and directly affects the freedom and security of communities plagued by gang activity, diminishing the value of property, inhibiting the desire of national and multinational corporations to transact business in those communities, and in a variety of ways significantly affecting interstate and foreign commerce,” according to legislation sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.).


“Gangs often recruit and utilize minors to engage in acts of violence and other serious offenses out of a belief that the criminal justice systems are more lenient on juvenile offenders,” the act states, adding: “Gangs often intimidate and threaten witnesses to prevent successful prosecutions.”


Dare I say that the damage that gangs do far outdistances any damage that terrorists have caused this country, not simply in numbers killed, but in the wholesale destruction of lives, hopes and communities? Not that we should let up on terrorists, but….


Feinstein’s bill—the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act of 2007—federalizes gang crime activities, but doesn’t go so far as to set up a special Gitmo and Abu Grahib, eliminate the right of habeas corpus for suspected gang members or authorize a degree of torture. That would require a change in the Constitution. I’m not for it, but if you put it to a vote in gang-infested neighborhoods, you might see a majority say, “if that’s what it takes to get the punks out, yeah, go ahead.”


The idea doesn’t rest well with another Chicago Tribune reader who said:


I agree that gangs are a domestic terrorist, but they already are handled with a higher level of force….


However, it is not illegal to be in a gang. Gangs are infamous for a myriad of illicit and illegal activities, but just belonging to the group is not reason for arrest. It is that type of thinking that has every person with a turban, brown skin or Middle Eastern characteristics being strip searched and detained at airports. I believe we already walk a constitutional fine line against the right to assemble with the current gang task force activities and gang prevention programs carried out already. I don’t dispute we seriously need them, but the reality is you actually have to prove the crime is committed by the right person and it is a lot harder to prove when you are protected by everyone who knows the truth. And those that aren’t protecting you are too afraid to speak. It is a lot more complicated than lock a person up for joining.


So, it follows, according to this writer, that the solution to gang problems is to eliminate their causes: the rotten environment of bad schools, dilapidated housing and so forth. All worthy goals, yet already the object of countless government and private efforts. Getting it all done, if possible, would entail a long time waiting around for results, waiting that Ms. Lee could not afford.


Feinstein’s bill, with 44 bipartisan cosponsors, passed the Senate in September and has been assigned to the House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities. Among other things, the legislation expands the definition of racketeering, especially relating to drug trafficking and increases criminal penalties for gang-related crime.


Leave it to the folks in Washington to see a federal solution to just about everything, especially when it involves, as Feinstein’s bill, distributing some more cash. Not that the bill would hurt.


But it seems some other (local) solutions may already be working. In 2007, Chicago
recorded its fewest homicides since 1965. Interim Chicago Police Supt. Dana Starks credited the progress on the hard work of dismantling gangs and disrupting narcotics trafficking. The department conducted nearly three-dozen drug-conspiracy operations, arresting entire groups of narcotics sellers and dealers at particular locations. The effort has netted more than 6,000 guns.


Sometimes the solutions are simple, common sense actions, such as cracking down on illegal street-gambling operations, like dice games. Deputy Supt. John Risley of the Bureau of Strategic Deployment said, “People might think it’s a minor thing, but we learned that during the games, if people were upset, and maybe already had a gang problem, then they would take advantage of the situation and use it to shoot them.”


Such solutions resemble the successful “broken windows” strategy that suggests that taking care of the small things sometimes takes care of the larger things. Such solutions also raise the ire folk who see in them profiling and thinly veiled racism. Aggressive police enforcement to them means victimizing innocent young men.


I don’t agree. But better that then the continuing deaths of children and innocent adults.