Once again a self-avowed “white nationalist” has carried out a violent attack on innocent Americans. And, once again, political leaders, the media and the general public have been extremely reluctant to call the incident what it is: terrorism.
According to witnesses, on May 26, Jeremy Joseph Christian, a 35 year-old man with a criminal record and history of hate speech, spewed anti-Muslim rhetoric at a teenager wearing hijab and her non-Muslim, African American friend on a train in Portland, Oregon. When three men rose to protect the girls, he stabbed them, killing two and seriously injuring a third. Once in custody he allegedly boasted, “I just stabbed a bunch of mother—rs in the neck. . . . I can die in prison a happy man.”
The attack has been designated a “hate crime” and condemned by everyone from the president to the mayor of Portland. However legally accurate it may be, “hate crime” does not do justice to the victims nor accurately describe what occurred. There is a disturbing tendency to treat such attacks as isolated incidents perpetrated by disturbed individuals rather than seeing them as part of a larger pattern of violent extremism. A hate crime it may have been, but the stabbings were also an act of terrorism.
'Hate crime' does not describe what occurred. A hate crime it may have been, but the stabbings were also an act of terrorism.
Based on the investigation so far, Christian fits the pattern of a lone-wolf terrorist. He may not have belonged to any specific organization, but his online activity, statements and actions place him firmly within the White supremacist camp. This broad, diffuse ideological movement goes by many names: Christian Identify, White Nationalism, neo-Nazi, etc. The movement’s diverse groups share certain beliefs: a distrust of government (and sometimes a denial of its authority), racism, antisemitism, Islamaphobia, and ethnocentrism.
Most extremist groups that espouse this ideology are careful to avoid overtly inciting violence, but they know perfectly well that some of their fellow travelers will get the hint and strike a blow for their cause. Like Dylan Roof, who murdered nine African Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015, Christian turned hate speech into hateful action. Ideology motivated both men, and their actions clearly spread fear, which makes what they did terrorism.
Critics will object that Roof and Christian were at best emotionally unstable and at worst mentally ill individuals driven by person pathology, nothing more. This assertion may be true, but it also denies the larger context in which the men operated. Omar Mateen, the perpetrator of the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre, also showed signs of personal pathology, but that did not stop us from labeled an ISIS terrorist, even though he apparently had no official ties with the group. Many individuals who carry out terrorist attacks are unstable, but they would not act as they do without an ideological focus. When the perpetrator is a Muslim, we emphasize his ideological convictions. When he is a White supremacist, we emphasize his personal pathology.
“What does it matter?,” readers may ask. Whether we call them hate crimes or terrorism, we are still condemning the acts and punishing the perpetrators. To cast out a demon, however, you must be able to name it. Labeling racially or religiously motivated attacks “domestic terrorism” could empower government to devote more resources to combating the threat. It might also encourage a long overdue conversation on the difference between free speech and hate speech, a consideration of where individual liberties end and the safety of the community begin.