Is the Charleston shooting a hate crime, terrorism, or just murder?

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The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means via Flickr.

Spencer Means via Flickr Creative Commons

The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means via Flickr.

Last night nine people were murdered at an historic AME church in Charleston, South Carolina church. The crime is being treated as a hate crime, but some have called in an act of terrorism. What is the difference? When does a crime become a hate crime or terrorism?

The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means via Flickr.

The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Church, Charleston, SC. Photo by Spencer Means via Flickr.

In our everyday language, the difference between a hate crime and terrorism is one of degree, not kind. The murder of nine people seems too big to label as a crime. It’s terrorism. Legally, however, hate crimes and terrorism differ in their intent. There can be small acts of terrorism and large, heinous acts that are hate crimes.

The term “hate crime” is a somewhat of a misnomer. Many crimes are driven by hate. A better term is “bias crime.” The distinguishing feature of a hate crime or bias crime is that the act is based on the perpetrator’s bias against a race, religion, or other group. A hate crime deprives someone of their life, liberty, or property based on who they are, and it often has the intent of intimidating others who look, act, or believe like the victim.

Terrorism is different. We often use terrorism to describe horrendous acts of violence that are committed on a larger scale than other crimes, but this isn’t the legal definition. Terrorism is a political crime against a government or the population. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) 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.”

Sorting out whether a crime is a hate crime, terrorism, or simply a “normal” crime depends on the circumstances. Saying that the shooting is a hate crime and not an act of terrorism does not diminish the tragedy. Indeed, it says that people have civil rights that must be protected. A crime does not need to be an attack on the public to be something more than murder.

Whether or not the shooting in Charleston is a hate crime will be something that can be established only after a full investigation. At this time, it is a crime that should be investigated as a hate crime.

Here’s a few facts that justify a hate crimes investigation:

  • The location is a church of important historical significance in the black community of Charleston (and the rest of the country).
  • The victims were shot while participating in an activity related to their race and religion.
  • All of the victims were black. The shooter is white.
  • According to reports, Dylann Roof, the person arrested for the crime, has a Facebook picture in which he is wearing a coat with the flag of Apartheid-era South Africa. Another photo shows Roof with a car with a “Confederate States of America” license plate.
  • Roof reportedly also used language that showed that he was shooting the victims because of their race. According to reports, Roof said, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
  • There is a public perception that the crime was aimed at victims based on their race.

There is always the chance that the shooting is not a hate crime.The investigation may uncover another motive for the crime. Perhaps the shooter knew the victims and targeted them out of personal animus. But at this time, the crime clearly warrants a hate crime investigation. If the investigation uncovers evidence that the shooter was biased against blacks or that he was motivated because of the victims’ race, then the act will clearly fall into the category of a hate crime.

Blog post updated with information on Dylan Roof following his arrest.

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  • Larry

    “Is the Charleston shooting a hate crime, terrorism, or just murder?”

    Yes

  • Pete

    It doesn’t matter what it is labelled as, murder under whatever guise is wrong.

  • Roger Kole

    No.It does matter.

    Terrorism is that which seeks to enforce extremists views on other human beings by engaging and causing terror among people. This stems from a dangerous ideology that involves a group people with extremist values in society. This extremist ideology has to be identified and rooted out.

    Hate crimes are those that do not necessarily seek to enforce their views on others, but cause irreversible harm to other innocent human beings. Hate crimes can be addressed by teaching people and enforcing strong ethical values in life from a very young age and educating them about the value of tolerance in life.

    Knowing this distinction is very important as it is plays a very vital role in addressing these issues that cause great harm to society and must be addressed to protect life and dignity.

  • Larry

    The line between hate crime and terrorism is subjective and frequently blurred. Lynching is both an act of terrorism and a hate crime. As is attacking churches known for political activism.

    I strongly disagree with your definitions. Hate crimes very much seek to enforce views of the perpetrator on others. Usually an enforcement of segregation between the victim (____ get out!) and perpetrator or seeking destruction of the victims as a class of people. (all __ should die!)The purpose is many times to terrorize a given group. (Watch out, we are going to kill you!)

  • Jon

    If the legal definition for terrorism is “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.”, would not targeting an important location and certain class of people with the social agenda to end that class of people (citing the quote above, the shooter did not reference specific people in the room but ‘people’ as a general term to label a certain race) make it legal terrorism as well as a hate crime

  • Ben in oakland

    Well, Mr. grant, why not all three of them? And then, let’s add in a few more.

    1) our desire to paper over our festering legacy wound of racism. We have done a decent job of eliminating a lot of it, but now that very success hampers us in getting rid of the rest of it.

    2) our national obsession with guns– to the point where we can’t even have a modicum of gun control and registration. Do these things happen in other western countries. Absolutely. do they happen with the frequency that they do in our country? Absolutely not. It’s kinda like interpreting the bible– the second amendment is made to say things it simply doesn’t, in service to our love affair with guns.

    3) extreme violence as entertainment. You can show the massacre of millions, as in star wars or any Schwarzenegger movie, and that is family entertainment. But to show two men in love: heavens, protect the children. It is here where our religious obsession confronts our gun obsession, and both come out…

  • JR

    Are we kidding with these ridiculous labels? A kid killed nine people…that’s it. Murder pure and simple. Why do prosecutors waste any time thinking about what to charge the murderer with? Stupid judicial system.