Friday, September 14, 2012

Is Terrorism a Hate Crime?

People get upset over anti-American attacks, like the consulate attack and deaths in Libya.  There's something about terrorist attacks against Americans that adds, literally, insult to injury for most Americans.  Terrorist attacks take, collectively, a minor toll on American lives compared to many other causes of death we pay little attention to.  But they get media attention far out of proportion to their actual impact.  From the Cato Institute, for example:
Any violent crime is terrible, but terrorism is extremely rare in the United States. The risk that any given American will be killed by a terrorist is about the same as the chance that a randomly selected high school football player will one day be a starting quarterback in the Super Bowl. One's chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is many times less than one's chance of drowning in a bathtub or being killed by a fall from scaffolding or a ladder. We would not adopt the "if it saves one life'' theory to justify a ban on bathtubs, even though hundreds of lives would be saved each year. Accordingly, America should reject terrorism legislation that will probably not save any lives and that demands that Americans give up things far more important than bathtubs.
But emotionally, we are far more affected by terrorism than other causes of death.  We've been willing to compromise basic freedoms to prevent terrorism and punish terrorists  (ie, assassinations, habeas corpus violations, 'extraordinary rendition').   We've been intimidated by terrorists (or manipulated by politicians using terrorist attacks as an excuse) to spend huge amounts to invade the privacy of every airline passenger.  We've committed violence to our justice system to punish those we call terrorists.  The Obama administration's attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a New York federal court instead of a military court, for example, caused sharp protests.  From the Carnegie Council:
The response of prominent members of the Bush administration and other leading Republicans to the announcement was swift, as they accused the Obama administration of failing to understand the danger of trying a terrorist on US soil. A secondary concern, expressed at Attorney General Holder's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 18, was that the trial would give the accused the chance to avoid conviction. The protections of a legal team and the vagaries of juries, it was argued, could result in a suspected terrorist escaping justice. 
There is no presumed innocence until proven guilty for terrorists here.  Somehow these crimes are different, are more heinous, are less deserving of the American justice system.
The Patriot Act was passed, in part to increase the penalties for terrorists.
From the Department of Justice website:
4. The Patriot Act increased the penalties for those who commit terrorist crimes. Americans are threatened as much by the terrorist who pays for a bomb as by the one who pushes the button. That's why the Patriot Act imposed tough new penalties on those who commit and support terrorist operations, both at home and abroad. In particular, the Act:
  • Prohibits the harboring of terrorists. The Act created a new offense that prohibits knowingly harboring persons who have committed or are about to commit a variety of terrorist offenses, such as: destruction of aircraft; use of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons; use of weapons of mass destruction; bombing of government property; sabotage of nuclear facilities; and aircraft piracy. 
  • Enhanced the inadequate maximum penalties for various crimes likely to be committed by terrorists: including arson, destruction of energy facilities, material support to terrorists and terrorist organizations, and destruction of national-defense materials. 
  • Enhanced a number of conspiracy penalties, including for arson, killings in federal facilities, attacking communications systems, material support to terrorists, sabotage of nuclear facilities, and interference with flight crew members. Under previous law, many terrorism statutes did not specifically prohibit engaging in conspiracies to commit the underlying offenses. In such cases, the government could only bring prosecutions under the general federal conspiracy provision, which carries a maximum penalty of only five years in prison.
  • Punishes terrorist attacks on mass transit systems. 
  • Punishes bioterrorists.
  • Eliminates the statutes of limitations for certain terrorism crimes and lengthens them for other terrorist crimes.
There is something different about a lone angry man shooting up a theater and a terrorist who does the same thing.  The latter apparently commits a crime that is even worse than the former.  It's murder plus. One difference seems to be intent.

Here's how the US Congress has defined terrorism 18 USC §2331 from Cornell Law:
As used in this chapter—
(1) the term “international terrorism” means activities that—
(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be 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; and
(C) occur primarily outside the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or transcend national boundaries in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum;
These are acts as 1(A) tells us, that are already illegal and now are getting the extra label of terrorism added to them.  

The Justice Department defines Hate Crimes on its website :
Hate crime is the violence of intolerance and bigotry, intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religious, sexual orientation, or disability. The purveyors of hate use explosives, arson, weapons, vandalism, physical violence, and verbal threats of violence to instill fear in their victims, leaving them vulnerable to more attacks and feeling alienated, helpless, suspicious and fearful. Others may become frustrated and angry if they believe the local government and other groups in the community will not protect them. When perpetrators of hate are not prosecuted as criminals and their acts not publicly condemned, their crimes can weaken even those communities with the healthiest race relations. 
What the two acts - hate crimes and terrorism - seem to have in common are:
  • Violence
  • Intent to intimidate (and I think coerce plays a role in hate crimes too, though the word isn't used in the definition above.)
If you read white supremacist or white nationalist websites, there is also a clear  goal to change government policies related to race (usually separate the races to save whiteness)  and there is talk of inevitable civil war in the US.  I won't link to those sites, you'll have to find them on your own.

Given the similarity between terrorism and hate crimes, why is there opposition to hate crimes laws by people who support anti-terrorism laws?  

For instance a statement by House Majority leader Boehner (from CBS News):
All violent crimes should be prosecuted vigorously, no matter what the circumstance," he said. "The Democrats' 'thought crimes' legislation, however, places a higher value on some lives than others. Republicans believe that all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance."
To be fair to Boehner, CBS contacted his office to see if he objected to all hate crime legislation or just adding gender and sexual orientation:

In an email, Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said Boehner "supports existing federal protections (based on race, religion, gender, etc) based on immutable characteristics."
It should be noted that the current law does not include gender, though the expanded legislation would cover gender as well as sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.

"He does not support adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes," Smith continued.
Of course, religion is NOT an immutable  characteristic.  People choose to change religions all the time and while individual sexual acts may be choices, sexual orientation surely isn't.  But that's besides the point here.

Another legislator also saw the idea of hate crimes as creating "thought" crimes:
Rep. Tom Price, who heads the GOP conservative caucus, also complained last week that the expansion of hate crimes legislation amounted to "thought crimes," and he labeled the bill's passage – tied to a defense bill – an "absolute disgrace."

But contacted about his position on hate crimes legislation overall, Price took a different position than Boehner. According to Price communications director Brendan Buck, the congressman opposes all hate crimes protections, including existing ones.

"We believe all hate crimes legislation is unconstitutional and places one class of people above others," said Buck.
Intent, of course, is the basis for finding someone guilty of murder.  No one cries "thought police" there.  And despite the law, despite Boehner's assertion that "all lives are created equal, and should be defended with equal vigilance,"  the ACLU points out that some murder victims get less vigorous legal attention than others. 
While white victims account for approximately one-half of all murder victims, 80% of all Capital cases involve white victims. Furthermore, as of October 2002, 12 people have been executed where the defendant was white and the murder victim black, compared with 178 black defendants executed for murders with white victims.
The emotional attachment of the public and of officials affects how they react to events.

The hatred of a specific group of people makes a normal crime into a hate crime.  It's not  just about the criminal and victim, but about all people who share the targeted characteristic of the victim, whether it's race or religion or gender.

In terrorism, we have the same reaction - it isn't about what the victim did, but who the victim was - an American.  I'm an American, so I too could be randomly victimized if I'm traveling abroad.    The impact is wider and stronger because of the intent of the terrorist to use violence to intimidate anyone who is a member of the group American, just as in hate crimes.

Where's this all going?

I would hope that at least some of the readers can see where this is leading.  For some people - especially those who live in a society in which they are among the dominant population (ie a white male Christian in the US) and are never victimized because of their personal characteristics - it is hard to understand the effect of hate crimes on individuals within that group and on the group collectively.  (Though some people who call themselves Christians claim they are discriminated against.)

It seems to me that when the idea of America is attacked - as when the world trade center was destroyed - Americans react the same as members of traditionally victimized groups (racial and religious minorities, women, gays, etc.).

Even if they can't feel  what an African-American feels when seeing a Confederate flag, perhaps they can understand it's the same way they feel when they see video of planes crashing into the World Trade Center.  It doesn't diminish their feelings to know that the Confederate flag can cause the same feeling to many African-Americans.  It's like translating an emotional context from one culture to another. 

That, of course, assumes logic and consistency, and a real desire for the ideals of democracy and freedom.  There are many who are too fearful to be concerned about anyone else.  There are many whose goals are simply personal benefit and for whom American ideals are merely tools to use to get their own way. (Using American slogans to convince people to vote for them.)

And, there are some who, while emotionally impacted by crimes against the US, would advocate that terrorists deserve no more and no less punishment than those who commit similar crimes without an ideological or political motive.

But deep down, we're all humans who should be able to understand all this.   Even Clarence Thomas spoke up when the Supreme Court considered a cross-burning case and convinced his black robed colleagues that cross burnings were more than free speech, they were acts of intimidation.

Symbolic acts can intimidate and cause other real harm, beyond any direct physical harm to the victim. 

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