Was that a hate crime or a terrorist attack?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - When a man in a van plowed into pedestrians near a mosque in London early Monday, authorities quickly declared they were treating it as a possible act of terrorism.

When James T. Hodgkinson shot five people at a Republican baseball practice Wednesday, was that also an act of terrorism because of the shooter’s anger toward President Trump and the GOP? Or, was it a hate crime? 

“Terrorism” has become a highly politicized word. Dylann Roof, who murdered nine African American churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015, was convicted of hate crimes and murder, not terrorism.

That same year, Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 and injured 22 others in San Bernardino, an act that President Barack Obama condemned as terrorism. Some called the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando an act of terrorism. Others called it a hate crime against the LGBT community. President Obama declared it an “act of terror and an act of hate.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” 

FBI investigations of hate crimes are limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion or national origin. In addition, investigations originally were restricted to those in which the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, but with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the bureau became authorized to investigate these crimes without that restriction.

The act also expanded the role of the FBI to allow for the investigation of hate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.

During the past few decades, the vast majority of states have added hate crime laws to their books. These statutes allow longer criminal sentences if there is evidence that a crime was motivated by bias.

The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 1,094 incidents of hate or bias in the first month after the election, and 1,863 between Nov. 9 and March 31.

While the number of reports to the SPLC has tapered off since January, several serious crimes have occurred since then, including:

  • A stabbing attack on a train in Portland, Ore., left two people dead. The attacker was shouting what police have described as religious hate speech directed toward two Muslim women. Three men tried to intervene and were stabbed by the attacker, and two of them died.
  • A stabbing death in Maryland where a white college student stabbed and killed a black college student, Richard Collins III. That incident is being investigated by the FBI as a possible hate crime. 

Tung Yin a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., wrote in the Washington Post:

“Public labeling of mass shooters as terrorists since 9/11 has been anything but consistent. In 2002, John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people in the Washington area using a high-powered rifle concealed in their car. Muhammad received the death penalty because the shooting spree was treated as terrorism under Virginia law. Army psychologist Nidal Hasan killed 13 people and wounded more than 30 others at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009 and was denounced as a terrorist in some news reports as well as in a bipartisan Senate committee report.”

On the other hand, Yin notes, Jared Loughner, who killed six people and injured then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011, was generally described as a mentally ill “gunman” who had written anti-government posts online, rather than as a terrorist. Other mass shooters such as Seung Hui Cho, who murdered 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech in 2007; Doug Williams of Mississippi, who made racist comments at work and later killed five co-workers, four of whom were African American; and Steven Kazmierczak, who fatally shot five people at Northern Illinois University in 2008 — were called mentally ill, racist or simply murderous.

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