Rubio’s Bill Would Give Victims of Terrorist Attacks a Break on Student Loans

Posted By Derek Johnson on October 12, 2016 at 2:01 pm
Rubio’s Bill Would Give Victims of Terrorist Attacks a Break on Student Loans

Even under the best of circumstances, staying current on student loan payments can be challenging. For victims of terrorist attacks, it’s safe to say that bills might not be top of mind. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL, wants to help. The erstwhile presidential candidate recently introduced a bill  that would amend the 1965 Higher Education Act to allow victims of terrorist attacks to defer student loan payments for up to one year.

“Unfortunately, existing law does not automatically recognize an extraordinary situation like this, where giving survivors some time to regroup and delay their payments should be commonsense,” Rubio said in a press release announcing the bill. He decided to introduce the legislation in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June, which left 49 people dead and generated headlines across the country. He was working with a survivor who sustained injuries and expressed concern about his ability to pay his loan bills.

The federal government allows students to apply for loan forgiveness in the event the borrower suffers permanent disability. But this victim was seeking something else. “Instead of loan forgiveness, he simply asked for a delay of when his payments become due, and my office stepped in to help with the process,” Rubio said.

Terrorist attacks: What’s in a name?

One of the major questions surrounding the bill is determining which acts of violence qualify as terrorist attacks. There is no commonly accepted definition of terrorism. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims” But there is substantial disagreement among experts and society in general about how widespread to apply the term and what qualifies.

Some, like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and political commentator Glenn Greenwald, are sharply critical of the phrase and believe its use is selectively applied and fraught with political bias. “Ample scholarship proves that the term ‘terrorism’ is empty, definition-free and invariably manipulated,” Greenwald wrote in a post on The Intercept last year.

He lists two examples of attacks against civilians (a 2010 incident when an anti-government activist flew a single-engine plane into an IRS building and the 2015 Charleston church shooting) that met the dictionary definition of terrorism but weren’t widely classified as such in media reports and by politicians. Both assailants targeted civilians and cited political goals as motivation for the attack.

Greenwald on the 2010 IRS attack:

“The New York Times’s report on the incident stated that while the attack ‘initially inspired fears of a terrorist attack’ — before the identity of the pilot was known — now ‘in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities.’

As a result, said the Paper of Record, ‘officials ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or causes.’ And ‘federal officials emphasized the same message, describing the case as a criminal inquiry.’ Even when U.S. Muslim groups called for the incident to be declared ‘terrorism,’ the FBI continued to insist it was handling the case ‘as a criminal matter of an assault on a federal officer’ and that it was not being considered as an act of terror.”

The Charleston shooting is an even more direct comparison. Like the Orlando nightclub attack, it was a mass shooting that targeted civilians, with suspect Dylan Roof citing a desire to incite a race war. In reacting to the stories, politicians – including Rubio – referred to the shootings as “senseless” and “a tragedy” but largely avoided describing it as an act of terrorism.

Under the language of Rubio’s bill, victims of the Charleston shooting would be eligible for loan deferment. The Justice Department announced in June of last year that the shooting was being investigated as a hate crime and an act of terrorism.

At the time of publication, Rubio’s office has not responded to an emailed request for comment.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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