The tragedy in Florida Sunday morning has rocked our country. At least 50 people were killed in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub—the largest death toll from gun violence in US history. The shooter was allegedly acting in the name of ISIS, though this is not yet confirmed. It is also not yet confirmed that this was a hate crime against the LGBT population, but on Pride weekend, at a gay club, it is hard not to draw those connections. The questions inevitably arise: what are the limits of freedom of speech and freedom of religion? How do we, as empathetic, tolerant citizens, make distinctions between a fanatic vs. the religion a fanatic aligns with? How do we get a clear picture of the larger story with so many news outlets pushing so many different angles? And how can the law guide our emotional responses?
Obama stated on Sunday, “We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate.” Fox News uses the language that strongly suggests Omar Mateen, the shooter, was directly connected to ISIS, while CNN and other news sources state that the link may have been an afterthought, and other organizations and individual terrorists might have acted as inspiration..
There is a logical call to treat this shooting as we would treat other hate crimes. The FBI defines a hate crime as, “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.”
But the language can quickly turn away from “hate crime” to partisan issues, especially with the elections around the corner. Trump immediately began exploiting the tragedy, shaking a fist at Obama and Clinton for not using the term “radical Islam” in their statements. Trump said, “Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen—and it is only going to get worse. I am trying to save lives and prevent the next terrorist attack. We can’t afford to be politically correct anymore.” This trend of calling the Left “soft” on terrorism in an effort to invalidate Obama. “Political correctness” has become a dirty word on the Right, but this attack on “political correctness” is, I believe, an interpretation of what I would call an attempt at tolerance: to separate any religion from its fanatics, including Christianity. (59% of hate crimes are committed by white people, most of whom are Christian, but Christianity as a whole comes away unscathed.) Some argue that political correctness may lead to a blind spot and slower investigative tactics. But I have not seen this backed up by fact. Terrorists who have been arrested all identified with a fundamentalist sect of Islam. To treat all practicing Muslims as a threat, it follows, would not lead to more arrests.
Amanda Marcotte at Salon makes these connections:
“Terrorism of this nature and hate crimes are exactly the same thing: Acts of violence performed to send a political message in support of bigotry and in opposition towards the liberal goal of an accepting, open society…The common thread here, again and again, is religious fundamentalism, whether your call it “Christian” or “Muslim.” LGBT people have been the favorite punching bag of the Christian right in this country for years.”
She goes on to point out, “According to the FBI’s latest hate crime statistics, over 20% of the 5,479 hate crime incidents in 2015 were anti-LGBT. Violence against trans people, in particular, is on the rise, in no small part because of the increasing drumbeat of anti-trans rhetoric coming from the Christian right.”
Muslim civil rights advocates have a history of standing side-by-side with the LGBT community against bigotry of this nature. Nihad Awad, from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said of ISIS, “You do not speak for us. You do not represent us. You are an aberration. You are outlaws…They don’t speak for our faith. They claim to, but 1.7 billion people are united in rejecting their extremism and their acts of senseless violence.”
But what is the legal difference between a hate crime and terrorism? An article from the BBC sums it up:
“Hate crimes are not separate charges, but an ‘enhancement’ to an existing charge, like assault or murder. Prosecutors use this option to increase the severity of the punishment for those crimes – a potential sentence for a hate crime assault would be higher than an assault with no hate crime enhancement. In the US, a hate crime is generally defined as ‘motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.’”
Whereas, “Terrorism charges are discrete offences, including charges like material support for terrorist groups and use of weapons of mass destruction. …The decision to bring terrorism-related charges or add a hate crimes charge rests with the prosecutor.”
Our responses to this horrifying event will inevitably come from an emotional place, with the backdrop of the election and rhetoric and propaganda from both sides of the aisle. But our legal system can serve as a place to ground ourselves, acting as a reminder of how we’re learning, as a country, to be both tolerant and steadfast against hate crimes, to hold freedom and security in our hands at once.