Recognize the Difference Between Terrorism and Hate Crimes

Pulse nightclub service

Vigil in Orlando. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The horrific mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando was both an act of domestic terrorism and a hate crime. Sunday morning all Americans felt threatened but the LGBTQ community felt both threatened and targeted. This devastating psychological impact on a minority group is the particularly dangerous and pernicious affect of bias motivated crimes.

Terrorism is a broad-based attack against the nation. Hate crimes are a criminal manifestation of bigotry that tear at the fabric of society. They tear particularly deeply because bias criminals seek to widen pre-existing societal fissure lines.

Even as we recognize the assault against the nation that is the intent of the domestic terrorist, we must recognize the particular harm caused by this act of hate-motivated violence against the target community. If, in 1938, we described Kristallnacht as a large-scale act of state-sponsored arson and vandalism, we would have thoroughly mis-described the nature of the crime. Kristallnacht was an act of large scale state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.

Despite remarkable progress in recognizing rights of gay, lesbian and transgender members of society, the LGBTQ community remains an embattled minority. The uniqueness of a hate crime is in its particular impact. Not only does a hate crime have an overwhelming personal effect on a individual victim, it inflicts an intended harm on other members of the target community who experience psychological trauma vicariously.

This effect has been demonstrated all too often and we saw it again these past days; members of the LGBTQ community felt not only empathy nor even just sympathy for direct victims, but also felt that they themselves were victims of this crime. In short they woke up Sunday morning feeling less safe than they had Saturday night, whether in Orlando or across the country.

Even as we recognize the assault against the nation that is the intent of the domestic terrorist, we must recognize the particular harm caused by this act of hate-motivated violence against the target community. If, in 1938, we described Kristallnacht as a large-scale act of state-sponsored arson and vandalism, we would have thoroughly mis-described the nature of the crime. Kristallnacht was an act of large scale state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence. And to fail to label it so and understand its impact on the target community would be to mis-describe the crime. It is precisely because of crimes such as that which occurred at the Pulse that so many legal scholars argued for, ultimately successfully, robust Federal hate crime legislation culminating in the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009.

In the coming days much will be said about domestic terrorism and the need for greater regulation of firearms. We must focus as well on the bias-motivation that is at the heart of what happened in Orlando. We must see this as a moment to knit the fabric of our society more closely together and to commit ourselves to that which connects us rather than that which divides us. Not all acts of terrorism are hate crimes. The mass murder at the Pulse was both.

Frederick M. Lawrence is Senior Research Scholar at Yale Law School and the former President of Brandeis University

Recognize the Difference Between Terrorism and Hate Crimes