Last weekend’s attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was horrendous as well as startling, in large part because most observers thought antisemitism was on the wane in America. Jews have enjoyed a large measure of success and acceptance here, especially in comparison with the fierce antisemitism that reigned in Europe for centuries, culminating in the Holocaust, and which thrives today in the Middle East.
A tragedy like the bombing of the synagogue, however, also sadly reminds us of the many acts of violence in this country that are racist in character. No group is potentially free from racially motivated violence, and African Americans especially have long been familiar with such violence.
By my recent count, between 1991 and 2016 there were 45 acts of arson, bombings, mass murder, hate crimes, and other violence committed against Black churches. In 2013, the most recent year for which federal data is available, the FBI identified 3,563 victims of racially motivated hate crimes. Black victims constituted 66 percent of the total.
There are many relevant questions to ask about hate crimes. One is whether their nomenclature within the criminal justice system should be escalated so that such crimes are considered terrorism. There’s an argument to be made for such an escalation. The target is civilians; the violence is carried out by nonstate actors, indeed usually by individuals; the act itself is meant to instill fear and dread beyond the event itself; and media coverage amplifies the effects of the violence itself.
The one missing criterion in this list is that hate crimes are not political in the way that idea serves as one of the central meanings of terrorism, as opposed to all other forms of violence.
What we mean by “political,” of course, can be tricky. For Aristotle, politics related to the structure, organization, or administration of the state. Most now would extend those ideas to the more general exercise of power, as well as the institutions and arenas in which such struggles occur.
Those engaged in terrorism, as an asymmetrical form of violence, generally seek to redress what they experience as a radical imbalance of power. Their military inadequacies are compensated by a willingness to attack “soft” targets of innocent civilians. That is the point.
Terrorist violence in fact by definition has a political point, that is, a specific political objective or set of political objectives.
The violence is not random. A Palestinian may well hate Jews in general and as a people, or may not, but will bomb a busload of Israelis primarily to alter the fundamental power relations in the land. Osama bin Laden attacked America on 9/11 to drive us out of the Middle East, among other objectives.
The Unabomber killed selected academic targets because he sought to awaken Americans to what he felt were the deadly, and apocalyptic, dangers of technology. And so on.
Hate crimes don’t really fit into that larger sense of political objectives. They stem from irrational hatreds and often flow from very disturbed, even psychotic, minds. Often the motivation is parochial and sometimes personal.
Hate crimes are heinous, deeply offensive, and spiritually objectionable, but they seem not to fit into a strict definition of terrorism.
So what? If hate crimes and terrorism are like two overlapping circles that still leave a substantial empty space, won’t we mobilize our resources better against such vile acts by treating them as terrorism?
Here I would strongly disagree.
Since 9/11, America has developed a vast and, I would argue, rather terrifyingly large counter-terrorism infrastructure. Our wars in the Middle East alone—fought to deal with terrorism–have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, created millions of refugees, and cost our economy between two and three trillion dollars; and we are more, rather than less, vulnerable to terrorism.
We have militarized society in the process with profound cultural, political, and spiritual meanings. Police officers now often look more like soldiers than your friendly cop on the beat. The eavesdropping ability of the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, and probably local police now exceed anything that was even imaginable before 9/11. The dangers to our civil rights are real and tangible.
They do not need enhancement.
There is another issue to consider. The FBI works with a very bad, even quirky, definition of terrorism that includes within it a phrase that makes destruction of property with a political motivation an act of terrorism.
That means if someone—and it could include myself—were involved in a demonstration against global warming and in a momentary fit of frustration threw a brick through a McDonald’s window, he or she—I, in the example–could be arrested and tried for carrying out, not a criminal act of vandalism, but an act of terror.
There are unforeseen consequences, in other words, in escalating the definition of what we consider terrorism. The FBI definition, especially, is already inadequate, and slippery. We don’t need the categories of violence which fall under its jurisdiction indiscriminately extended.
Charles Strozier is professor of history at John Jay College and founding director, Emeritus, of the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Readers’ comments are welcome.