Terrorism or hate crime?

Bowers burst into the synagogue, screamed, “All Jews must die” and began shooting indiscriminately at worshipers.

December 16, 2018 22:33
4 minute read.
Terrorism or hate crime?

Flowers and other items have been left as memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue following last Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 3, 2018. (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)


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Over the past month, in the span of two weeks, two “killing sprees” took place in the United States, one in Pittsburgh and the other in Thousand Oaks, California. Despite the similarities and common denominators between the two events, the first must be treated as a terrorist attack and the second as a criminal act.

At 10 a.m. on October 27, Robert Bowers, 48, a member of a neo-Nazi organization, entered the “Tree of Life” synagogue in Pittsburgh armed with weapons. Bowers burst into the synagogue, screamed, “All Jews must die” and began shooting indiscriminately at worshipers. He killed 11 people in the shooting spree and injured six worshipers and police officers. Prior to the attack, Bowers posted statements on his social media account against a Jewish organization that helps Jews immigrate to the United States: “HAIS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Bowers surrendered to police after being injured.

Less than two weeks later, on November 8, Ian David Long, a former Marine, murdered 12 people and injured 12 others in a shooting spree targeting students who were attending a party at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. Long, 28, who was armed with an illegally obtained Glock pistol and smoke grenades, apparently suffered from post-trauma due to his military service and killed himself at the end of the attack.

Several hours after the attack in Pittsburgh, US Attorney Scott Brady was asked in a press conference how he defined the incident. Brady said that the incident was defined as a “hate crime.” Asked what differentiates a hate crime from domestic terrorism, he responded:

“A hate crime is when an individual is animated by a hatred or certain animus toward a person of certain ethnicity or religious faith; it becomes domestic terrorism where there is an ideology that the person is then also trying to propagate through violence.” 

The answer, which in fact reflects the position of US enforcement authorities, is of course artificial and even ridiculous. Isn’t racism an ideology? Isn’t antisemitism? How are perpetrators who are motivated by racist motives different than those who are motivated by anarchist, communist, fascist, Islamist or any other motive? The killer from Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers, is a terrorist. True, he is not an Islamist terrorist but he is a racist terrorist who carried out a terrorist attack for ideological motives and in order to achieve political objectives – the end of immigration to US territory for immigrants in general and for Jews in particular. This is in contrast to the killer from Thousand Oaks, a criminal who carried out a killing spree, not on ideological grounds and not in order to achieve any political goal, but apparently against the backdrop of mental instability and possibly even post-trauma due to his military service.

While there is no international agreement on the definition of terrorism (and indeed the time has come for action to reach an agreement on a binding international definition, the most appropriate working definition is: “Terrorism is the deliberate use of violence aimed against civilian targets in order to achieve political ends.” In this respect, terrorists may carry out similar and even identical acts to those of criminal offenders – to murder, kill, take hostages, blackmail and more. However, while terrorists are motivated by political motives, criminals are not. Therefore, the Pittsburgh attack was a terrorist attack and the Thousand Oaks attack was actually a criminal act.

It is worth emphasizing that this is not merely an issue of semantics. In 1991, extremist rabbi Meir Kahane was murdered while delivering a public lecture to supporters in Brooklyn by a radical, Egyptian Islamist immigrant named Sayid Nossair. The killer was captured and stood trial for committing a “hate crime” and not a terrorist attack.

Two years later, in 1993, a group of radical Islamist terrorists carried out a terrorist attack at the Twin Towers in New York. Their intention was to park a car bomb carrying hundreds of kilograms of explosives in the underground parking of the buildings and blow them up in such a way that one of the Twin Towers would collapse on the second building, destroying it as well. This grave attack, which is very reminiscent of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, was carried out by a similar group of “Afghanistan veteran” terrorists led by the blind Egyptian sheikh, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, who recruited the members of the cell and trained them for the attack. The explosives used for the attack were prepared in his New Jersey mosque. The cell did manage to get the car bomb into the underground parking lot and blow it up, but the terrorists failed to cause the buildings to collapse, and therefore the number of casualties was very limited (several dead and hundreds wounded). Only then, two years after Kahane’s murder, did the FBI investigation reveal that the murderer, Sayid Nossair, was a member of the same cell led by the Blind Sheik. It can be assumed that had Kahane’s murder been defined as a terrorist attack from the beginning, the federal investigation that would have opened in its wake would have exposed the entire cell and perhaps even prevented the 1993 Twin Towers terrorist attack.

The writer is founder & executive director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and the dean of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC), Herzliya, Israel.

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