The series of attempted mail bombings and the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue this month have once again raised the specter of hate and terrorism in the United States. As public debate intensifies, it is important to understand what the terms “terrorism” and “hate crime” actually mean and why these definitions matter. For instance, both types of crime can carry harsher penalties than other similar violent acts. Both are also symptoms of deep social and political stress, as history has shown. Only once these crimes are appropriately labeled can Americans grapple with their origins.
Terrorism is ineluctably political. It represents an intent to intimidate, coerce, punish, or otherwise influence others by violence or the threat of violence because of their political views, affiliation, or position. Describing terrorism is often complicated by gaps between the strict legal definition and more general societal interpretations.
Many Americans, for instance, were understandably confused when the term was dismissed by authorities in the context of a shooting at a Las Vegas concert last year that killed fifty-eight people, but then invoked in the case of a vehicular assault in New York City that killed eight people last Halloween. The reason is that it is impossible to determine whether Stephen Paddock, the deceased Las Vegas gunman, was motivated by politics. However, the professed allegiance of Sayfullo Saipov, the Uzbek man charged with the Manhattan attack, to the self-proclaimed Islamic State endowed that act with an undeniable political context.
The law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting a violent crime must ensure that it conforms to the definition of terrorism under federal law. In other words, they must be completely confident there is sufficient proof that the act in question was intended “(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Hence, until they conclude their investigation, the FBI and police, as well as the relevant prosecuting authority, are understandably constrained from applying the label to an act that may look like terrorism. The difference, therefore, is not in the way that the crime is investigated, but whether it is prosecuted under terrorism or some other violent-crime statute based on the evidence gathered. Terrorism charges can significantly increase the penalties perpetrators face, and the inevitable media coverage can raise public understanding and awareness of what may be a larger, more sustained threat to society.