Charleston – on hate crimes, terrorism and oppression

25 juni 2015 | In Crime Ethics Moral Psychology Philosophy of Law politics Psychology | Comments?

First, there are two initial question regarding how to categorize this event: Was it a hate crime? And was it an act of terrorism? The answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” to both. Statements reportedly made by the suspect, the symbols he wore, the choice of victims and place, the reported premeditation, etc. all speaks to this being a racially motivated crime, i.e. a hate crime as well as a crime committed with the intent to bring about societal change or, rather, to stop societal change, or to bring things back to the way they were, i.e. an act of terrorism. I will put most emphasis on the hate crime angle, as it is my area of expertise.

Hate crime. The Charleston case is one. On nearly every conception of what an hate crime is, if current information stands, this qualifies as one. Some commentators has said that we need to await the result of the full investigation, and that is always a good idea, but it would be surprising if that investigation would undermine what seems to be a blatantly clear cut case. There are a number of hate crime conceptions, that only partly overlap. The most common idea is of hate crimes as distinct by motivation, i.e. the reason why the perpetrator committed the crime. But in fact, many jurisdictions interpret hate crime as a case of intentionally selecting victims from a protected class, and puts less weight on the reason why the crime was committed. This is an advantage in two ways; it does not require proof of motive, and it does not rely on the controversial notion of punishing motive. A third conception understands hate crimes as defined by intent; the intent to strike fear in the targeted community, for instance. On this account, hate crimes are more or less a species of domestic terrorism. A fourth identifies hate crimes as crimes expressing a certain message to the targeted crime. (The expressive account has however been deemed unconstitutional in the US due to its conflict with the 1st amendment). The Charleston case seems to qualify as a hate crime on all these accounts. It seems to be hate motivated, the victims and place were choices because of their racial significance, the intent was (apparently) to send a message and to instigate race war.

That being said, South Carolina does not have a hate crime law. This in itself is worthy of note. The development of hate crime laws in the US was preceded by the civil rights movement, and is generally held to have the differential treatments of former slaves as second-class citizens as its background. The fact that South Carolina has not taken this measure, in conjunction with factors like flying the confederate flag and naming streets after confederate generals, means there is a long way to go. That SC does not have a hate crime law is not the end of the matter. The case can, and it looks like it will, be run as a federal case. Since the Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crime prevention act was signed into law in 2009, federal authorities have extended abilities to handle cases the states are unable or unwilling to take.

This is important for two reasons. First, the federal government having to step in in order to make justice possible in a race based case in a Southern state says something about how America is divided. Second, in order for this to be run as a hate crime case, it must be run on a federal level. But hate crime laws are penalty enhancements laws. And given the gravity of the case, it is quite possible that the penalty, if it had stayed in South Carolina state court, would have been the death penalty. In fact, the probability that it leads to the death penalty in a federal court may be lower. Which means that in order for it to be judged as a hate crime, it may lead to a lower penalty being given. On this account at least, this case can become legally interesting.

Why are hate crimes worse than other crimes? This was a massacre, a mass murder, an act of terrorism. What is the significance of naming it a hate crime?  As I said, hate crimes laws normally take the form of penalty enhancement statutes. This is because they are deemed worse than ”parallel” crimes, i.e. similar crimes absent the hate element. There are a number of reasons why, some having to do with the discriminatory nature of these acts, others with the maliciousness with which they are being committed. The most common account is harm-based, however. Hate crimes, according to influential scholars like Paul Iganski and Frederick Lawrence, hurt more. The primary victims typically experience more psychological harm when the crime is hate motivated. In a case like this, when the outcome is death, that is not relevant. But the additional harm also exist on the victims group and on society in general – it may, for instance, worsen the relations between groups. Both these accounts are relevant here; the targeted group is reminded of the risk it is at, and the tension between groups hightened.. Indeed, that was the expressed intent of the offender – to start a race war

Before moving on, lets just say this on penalty enhancements: Say he is sentenced to the death penalty, and that penalty enhancements cannot come into effect. Still, it is not pointless to treat it as a hate crime. Indeed, many victims and victimized group say that the penalty enhancement is less important than is naming the motive in these cases. Recognizing and condemning these types of crimes is the more important part. Hate crime laws has an expressive function.

So, was this an act of terrorism? Again, the answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” by most definitions. But perhaps not all. What makes an act of terrorism is the intent (together with means reasonably fit to purpose) to cause fear and force societal and/or political change. According to one statement, Roof wanted to bring about a race war, which is certainly one way of doing that.

What complicates matters is that Roof, much like the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, seems to be a conservative terrorist, i.e. one that wants to stop change. Or to change things back the way they were. And this may be one of the reasons why he was not immediately and universally being called a terrorist. The ”typical” terrorist is someone somehow alien to the system which he/she wants to change. The thing that people keep pointing out is that this act was the extreme expression of white supremacy, and that this ideology is actually not that alien to the dominant culture. Many commentators that wants this branded as an act of terror, also thinks that the racism expressed is not uncommon, indeed that these attitudes are entrenched in society, part of the norm. There is some tension between these two aspects: Do we want to portray him as somehow normal, which means that the problem is much, much bigger than the risk of these kinds of attacks? Or do we want to describe him as something ”other”, something alien to our system? The reluctance to accept something entrenched in ”our” culture to be capable of terrorizing that same culture is probably one of the reasons we turn to questions about mental health in these cases. Why would a person congruent with the dominant culture in what is being described as a racist society otherwise go to these lengths, take this sort of risk? In the absence of a deep cultural divide between him and us, we need mental health issues to distance ourselves from a man capable of such heinous crimes.

The reasons why it might not be understood as terrorism is that we do not yet know whether there is any clear organization behind him – which is typical of what people think of as terrorism. Of course, the need for such organizations to facilitate acts of terrorism is considerably weakened by the internet, which make it possible to cherry-pick an ideology, a support base, and a methodology to suit you. Secondly, that the criminal is (as Åsne Seierstadt stated in her book about Breivik) ”one of us”, i.e. not that different from normal members of the population. This is significant as it means there is no discernible ”other” to direct retaliation towards. Terrorist threat is ”supposed” to come from outside, from people with no other route to a position of power. Rather than describing it as an act of terrorism, then, it could be branded as an act of oppression. 

The significance – Charleston as a symptom

What does this act mean? What does it signify? Is it a sign of things getting worse, and this is just a symptom of growing racism and racist rhetoric? Or (counter-intuitively) may it be a sign of things getting better? Racist offenders may find their justification in others expressing the same views. But they also find their justification in thinking of themselves and the society and values they care about as being somehow threatened. While hate crime criminals are often part of the majority, it is when that majority think of themselves as loosing their privilege that the need to commit a crime to keep that privilege arise. Lynchings were often a reaction to former slaves behaving in a way that former slaveowners and other whites thought of as unacceptable for a black person. Similarly, hate crimes are often understood as a response to people of the hated group stepping out of their place, and there being no other way of putting them back. Segregation, privilege and power means rarely having to worry. But, of course, privilege should be threatened. People like with the beliefs that Roof seem to have should be feeling threatened, because the order they want should be collapsing. If this is how it works (note that this is just a hypothesis), a rise in these types of crimes is likely to occur as things becomes better at a more everyday, ”structural” level.


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