Are hate crimes terrorism?


This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.


The Terrorism Prosecution Project has been, from the beginning, dedicated to including all crimes with a political agenda, even if the government does not label them as terroristic. We feel that this is necessary to get a full picture of politically motivated crimes, given that whether a crime is called terroristic seems to depend on the characteristics of the attacker, rather than whether their motives were political.

This decision means that we have spent a great deal of effort determining the sort of cases to include in our dataset. One of these discussions has centered around whether to include hate crimes. The FBI defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Naming a criminal offense a hate crime has the practical consequence of adding an enhancement to the charges faced by the perpetrator. This usually means a longer sentence if convicted. The reasoning for this longer sentence is that a crime motivated by bias against a group targets not just the individual who is the direct victim of the attack. It terrorizes the entire community of people like them.

A similar logic comes into play with terrorism. Legal definitions of terrorism require not just that a crime is dangerous to human life. It also must “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” (this text is found in the definitions of both domestic or international terrorism in 18 U.S. Code § 2331). Offenses deemed terroristic are treated with more gravity than those which are not, because they are intended to affect not just the direct target (e.g. the person kidnapped or the building bombed), but a wider audience (e.g. the general public, a specific group, or a government).

Let’s consider an example. In October 1994, cousins Ricky Rivera Mungia, Eli Trevino Mungia, and Roy Ray Martin shot three black men in Lubbock, Texas, killing one. They were attempting to start a race war. Due to the group’s use of racial slurs and the testimony of a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi, the men were convicted for the killings, with a hate crime enhancement. We have not been able to locate official government speech referring to this incident as terrorism. Why not? Does this not “appear to be intended… to intimidate or coerce a civilian population”?

The TPP team believes this incident has clear socio-political aims, and thus has included it in our dataset, even though the US government does not label it as terrorism. It will be interesting to see what quantitative analysis of our dataset will reveal about which crimes designated hate crimes are also called terroristic.

Note: as is the case with terroristic crimes, not every crime that appears to meet the definition of a hate crime is actually prosecuted as a hate crime, or called a hate crime in government speech. See this article for a more in-depth discussion of the practical reasons the government calls some crimes terrorism or hate crimes, and others not.

– Taylor

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