Warning/apology: This is an explanation of the legal differences between hate crimes and terrorism. It is not meant to diminish the tragedy. Unfortunately, this is a revision of a post following the shooting in Charleston. Dylan Roof has since been charged with hate crime, not terrorism. We should expect the same for Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people and left nine wounded in his attack Friday.
In our everyday language, the difference between a hate crime and terrorism is one of degree, not kind. A shooting of 12 people, three of whom died, seems too big to label as a normal crime. It seems like it must be 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 defined a political crime against a government or the population. It has a political goal. It can be an attack on the government, as with the Oklahoma City bombing. In the Boston marathon bombing, it was an act against the population.
But simply: terrorism it is an act against America, but a hate crime targets victims because of their race, gender, or other immutable characteristic.
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 Colorado Springs 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 that targeted a women’s health clinic.
Here’s a few facts that justify a hate crimes investigation:
- It appears that the target was a women’s health clinic; the perpetrator was male.
- The perpetrator reportedly referenced abortion and “baby parts.” Abortion is protected under a woman’s constitutional right of privacy.
- There is a public perception that the crime was aimed at victims based on their involvement in women’s health.
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. He may also suffer from mental illness. But the location and other immediate facts suggest that this is, legally, a hate crime.
This is certainly more than a random act of violence. I won’t argue with those who want to call it an act of terrorism—it’s a word that best fits the scope and violence of the tragedy. But when Robert Lewis Dear is charged, expect that the charges to include federal hate crimes, not terrorism.