What do we mean when we say 'hate crime' and 'terrorism'?

At least nine people were shot dead at a church in the US state of South Carolina on Wednesday by a man identified by the FBI as 21-year-old Dylann Roof.

Roof, who was arrested just before noon local time on Thursday, reportedly let one woman survive so she could tell others what happened. He is said to have told her: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Dylan Roof, who was apprehended by police on Thursday and is expected in court Friday.

As data from Mother Jones shows, the majority of mass shootings in the US are committed by white men - but they are labelled as "lone wolves" rather than "terrorists", even when they are found to hold racist or misogynistic world views.

One of the only core definitions of a terrorist act is that it is designed to strike fear in a large group of people. With hate crimes, that is not necessarily true.

Defining "terror" has a long history. According to Vox the first federal anti-terrorism law ever passed in the US was to stamp out acts of violence against freed black people by the Ku Klux Klan back in 1871.

But a 2014 study from the University of Albany in New York which looked at data from the 1970s to the present day defined terrorism as an "upward crime", where perpetrators are usually of a lower social standing that the targeted group.

By contrast, they found that hate crimes usually involve perpetrators who belong to the majority or most powerful groups in society, who then inflict violence on minority or less powerful victims.

The US government has traditionally used four criteria in determining what counts as an act of terror:

  • Premeditation
  • Political motivation
  • Aimed at civilians
  • Carried out by sub-national groups, rather than the state or army

A sticking point is if Roof is found guilty of acting on white supremacist ideals as a motive, does he count as a terrorist even if he wasn’t a member of an organised group?

The FBI and police in South Carolina have defined the shooting as a hate crime.

Whether you agree with the official classification or not, the one thing we know for sure is that it struck fear into the hearts of many.

As Richard Cohen, the President of the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement on Thursday, the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is an "obvious hate crime":

Since 2000, we've seen an increase in the number of hate groups in our country — groups that vilify others on the basis of characteristics such as race or ethnicity... The increase has been driven by a backlash to the country's increasing racial diversity, an increase symbolised, for many, by the presence of an African American in the White House.

Since 9/11, our country has been fixated on the threat of Jihadi terrorism. But the horrific tragedy at the Emmanuel AME reminds us that the threat of homegrown domestic terrorism is very real.

  • Richard Cohen, President of the Southern Poverty Law Center
Keep reading...Show less
Please log in or register to upvote this article
The Conversation (0)