Some tragically parallel crimes appeared in the news this week: in one, a man in downtown New York was shot and killed while his attacker shouted gay slurs. In another, two men ran down a London soldier, then stabbed him to death while shouting jihadist phrases and slogans.
These two crimes share a number of key similarities. They were motivated, targeted killings. Both made a political (or social) statement. In both, a single victim was a symbolic stand-in for a hated group that the killer(s) wanted to see injured, destroyed, or humiliated.
But there’s a key difference, too. While New Yorkers mourned the death of Mark Carson and the fact that his death occurred right down the road from the Stonewall Inn, the place to which the gay rights movement traces its birth, it otherwise didn’t see a lot of national coverage. A few people used the crime to question the purpose of hate crime laws in general (as always happens after a hate crime), claiming that since we have laws to punish actions, also punishing motivation is superfluous and potentially unconstitutional suppression of speech.
No one is making this argument in connection to the London “terror” killings, and not only because it takes place in the UK, where speech laws are different. No one is making the “unfair punishment of speech” argument in connection to terror attacks at all, because in the eyes of many in the United States, the motivation behind terror attacks is precisely what makes them important. This is evident in the differing coverage of the Boston bombings and other non-terror incidences like the Sandy Hook massacre.
Terror is a tactic: it seeks to exploit divisions in society so as to sow fear, uncertainty, and mutual distrust. Jihadist terrorists want to spark a war between Islam and the West, or want the West to fear for its foundational principles. The same impulse is at work in those who commit hate crimes: they seek to turn a minority against society at large or society against a minority. In both cases, the crime isn’t enough to destroy the hated group: the hope is there that a symbolic action will escalate the conflict.
Our justice system understands that motivation matters. Our national gut instinct understands this in the case of terror. Why else would we swoop into Yemen and Pakistan with secret drone strikes in pursuit of terrorists who have never yet killed an American, while we are unable to even tweak gun laws in the aftermath of Sandy Hook? It’s myopic to say that hate crime laws punish speech and not apply the same logic to terror suspects.
After all, if US citizens can be killed or imprisoned without trial over jihad-related motivation, why shouldn’t they be so treated for any other sociopolitical motivation?
I think that question answers itself.