Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies is currently debating a new anti-terrorism law that is worth keeping an eye on. Those supporting the law have defended it by saying it merely brings Brazil “in line with the international community.” Additionally, they point to the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 1994 attack on the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina as evidence of the threat of international terrorism in Brazil. Certainly, international terrorism in Argentina is a thing of the not-distant past, but Argentina is not Brazil. It’s worth recalling that, historically, terror attacks in Brazil have been internal, and have tended to come from the right, be it in the existence of the Command for Communist Hunting (Comando de Caça aos Comunistas, CCC) in the 1960s, or in incidents like the failed RioCentro attack of 1981 (with hardliner military officers involved), the use of bombs against newsstands that sold opposition newspapers, or even the recent attack on the Instituto Lula. [And that’s to say nothing of the use of state-sponsored terrorism through political arrests and torture in the Estado Novo or Brazil’s military dictatorship, or the ongoing reign of impunity for police who kill the urban poor and judges who investigate such crimes.] Certainly, there were incidents of terror attacks from the left, with the explosion of bombs and isolated assassination attempts, but it’s important to avoid false equivalency – far and away, the right and the military outdid the left in both the scope and reach of terrorism during the military regime. All of this is to say that, while an anti-terrorism law that seeks to prevent Argentine-like events sounds appealing, Brazil’s struggles with terrorism have historically (and, in the case of the attack on Instituto Lula, presently) been domestic, not international.
However, the bigger problem here seems to be what will be defined as terrorism, as the debate over the law indicates. Certainly, the law contains the standard definitions of international terrorism not uncommon in the 21st century:
Using, threatening, transporting, and saving explosives and toxic gases, chemical contents, and nuclear [materials/weapons] are situations that can be typified as acts of terrorism.
This does indeed sound like general definitions of terrorism in the 21st century in other parts of the world. What else?
The proposal also includes in this type of crime [terrorism]: arson, destroying public or private transportation or any public good, as well as sabotaging information systems, the functioning of communication or transportation networks, ports, airports, train and bus stations, hospitals, and locations where public services operate.
Most of this is also unsurprising, but it starts to enter murky territory now. The destruction of “public transportation” certainly could be an act of terror – think of the March 2004 attacks on trains in Spain, or the July 2005 attacks. But based on the openness of “attacks on public transportation,” it’s not inconceivable that protestors trying to defend themselves from heavily armed police by overturning a bus could also be considered “terrorists.”
And then there is the even more troubling area where debate is genuinely occurring:
[The text] typified as terrorism crimes motivated by “ideology, xenophobia, religion, discrimination, or prejudices of race, color, or ethnicity” and practiced with the objective of provoking generalized terror in the social order, with penalties that range from 12 to 30 years.
There are two major issues here – one was the inclusion of “ideology,” and the other is the question of who defines what is in the best interest of the “social order.” Defenders of the bill might suggest that “ideology” would be in reference to religious radicalism, but given that the Brazilian dictatorship targeted and killed hundreds and tortured thousands due to “ideology” makes clear that, historically, deploying a vaguely-defined understanding of “ideology” opens up some considerable loopholes for the targeting and imprisonment of citizens. Especially if it is only up to police or government officials to define “social order.” Again, drawing on the past in Brazil, protests calling for agrarian reform and constitutional reform would have upset the traditional power of the elite – and thus, the military ended up launching a coup that ushered in a 21-year regime of repression and state-led terror. Without clarifying either what constitutes “ideology” or defining “social order” (and who gets to enforce it), the law entered the troubling realm of creating a legal path through which civilians demonstrating peacefully could be subject to anti-terror laws for exercising their right to assemble and freedom of speech. [And this in a context where police are often already using repressive tactics against unarmed and peaceful protesters and even innocent passers-by without ever facing legal inquiries or charges over the use of such force.]
The good news is, that last portion of the law was rejected, with Congress voting 362-85 against it (with 2 abstentions). But that does not mean such laws or attitudes are dead. Indeed, as Ivan Valente, the leader of the Partido Socialismo e Liberdade (Socialism and Liberty Party, PSOL) in Congress put it, “All of the determined crimes are already covered by the Penal Code. What we have here is an order to amplify this and criminalize social and popular movements.” Given the degree of force state institutions like the police and military, along with right-wing ideologues, have used in the past with impunity (even while those on the left have also used force, albeit without the accompanying impunity), this is not an unfair characterization of the law, particularly in light of the degree to which police used force against protesters in 2013, often defending the repression of tens of thousands of peaceful protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets on the grounds of “disorder” caused by a handful.
Again, for now, the most troubling part of the anti-terror law is dead (though there’s still that question of targeting “transportation”), but it will be worth watching how the debate over what constitutes terror in Brazil plays out.