It seems there is yet another way to label someone a ‘terrorist.’ As Shane Harris explained in a recent National Journal article, a pre-9/11 law is being used to effect terrorist-grade jail sentences for criminals who are, by and by, of the more common ilk.

Harris cites several examples of alleged criminals turned bona fide terrorists—or at least those whom prosecutors attempt to label as such. While the law purports to punish terrorism, it serves equally well as a “bargaining chip,” holding stiffer sentences over defendants’ heads as a way to pump them for what the government believes may be precious information.

The so-called terrorism enhancement measure was enacted in 1995 as the country was just coming to terms with terror on the home front—the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

Harris says the Justice Department has been reluctant to remark on how federal prosecutors determine when to seek the terrorism enhancement’s application. It has been resurrected, he says, in cases in which the familiar connotation of terrorism is entirely absent: Even criminals “who didn’t commit a religiously motivated act of terrorism, or who consciously avoided human casualties,” Harris writes, can fall victim to petty wordplay and the whims of individual judges. Without the aid of a jury, the judges are entitled to apply what critics say is a “government shortcut to label criminals as terrorists and to punish them in extraordinary ways.” In some cases, Harris says, the only “proof” required is government reassurance of the so-called terrorist’s intent, even if that intent never played out in an actual attack. The powerful enhancement measure is a scant 11 words long, making the space between a criminal and a terrorist, quite possibly, smaller than this sentence.