Hate crime vs. terrorism

How our language highlights or disguises violence

by Ken Sehested

            Headlines about the Orlando nightclub slaughter regularly include the phrase “largest (or worst) mass shooting in U.S. history.” (See some of the photos and all of the names of those killed in this ABC News post.)

            Hardly. Not by a long shot.

            •There were dozens of attacks against Native Americans by white colonists that tallied higher body counts before and after the Revolutionary War up into the final decade of the 19th century. In one of those incidents, when the Pilgrims torched a Pequot village on the Mystic River, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford wrote:

            “It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fire and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stink and scent thereof; but the victory seemed a sweet sacrifice, and [we] gave the praise thereof to God.” That’s not a part of U.S. Christian history we hear much about. Things got so bad that dissenting Pastor Roger Williams wrote that it is “directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus . . . that throats of men should be torne out for his sake.”

            •At least 4 race riots targeting African Americans generated a higher death rate: New York City (1863), whose targets included an orphanage; Wilmington, N.C. (1898), which actually overthrew a democratically-elected city government; East St. Louis (1917); and Tulsa, Okla. (1921), mention of which disappeared from local and state histories until a 2001 state-commissioned report established the facts. The recommended reparations were ignored.

Right: Artwork by Meg Hess.

            •The 1862 Civil War battle at Antietam, near Sharpsburg, Md., led to over 22,000 casualties in a single day. Union General Tecumseh Sherman’s 1964 “March to the Sea” from Atlanta to Savannah, Ga., burning everything in its path, is considered by many historians the modern precedent to “scorched earth” tactics allowing the targeting of civilian in flagrant violation of anything resembling “just war” theory.

            •The designation of Orlando as “worst” completely omits that part of U.S. mass killings of civilians perpetuated outside U.S. borders. On the night of 9-10 March 1945, the military's Operation Meetinghouse, intentionally targeting the civilian population in Tokyo, killed upwards of 100,000, the deadliest bombing raid in history—nearly as many as the subsequent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

            •It’s unlikely we’ll ever know the number of “war on terror” prisoners killed or maimed at Guantanamo prison and some 50 other secret “black” sites scattered across an estimated 28 countries. Just last month the CIA’s inspector general says it “mistakenly” destroyed its sole copy of the 6,700-page report from 2012 on tortured prisoners.

            •In the U.S. targeted assassination program using pilotless drones, one study estimates that 90% of the fatalities in Afghanistan were civilians. Another, that an estimated 1,147 were killed in strikes targeting 41 suspected militants. This, despite President Obama’s pledge that no strikes occur unless there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” Just a month ago Chaplain 1st Lt. Chris Antal resigned his commission in protest over drone warfare carnage.

            These episodes, too, are part of “U.S. history.”

            You will (accurately) protest that several of the examples above were not limited to single-occasional events. I list them not to win an argument but to illustrate the fire-sale price put on human life when fear and hubris ignite in the bloody conflagration known as terrorism and hate crimes, inspired by one or another narrative of redemptive purpose.

            The purpose of terrorism is not killing. The purpose is instilling fear, to intimidate enemies and cower populations, for the purpose of political and economic advantage. Can you think of a better description of the role of nuclear weapons?


Hate crime? Terrorism? (poTAto, poTAHto)

            One of the public accounting tugs-of-war (still unfolding) in reporting and responding to the Orlando massacre is whether terrorism or homophobia was Omar Mateen’s principal motivation. Our nation’s political fracture was highlighted in the responses of political leaders, almost all Republicans naming the former, most Democrats the latter.

            This differentiation in our speech—hate vs. terror—is one of the ways our language allows us to prioritize harm, assigning greater or lesser degrees of menace. Hate crimes are mostly what we do to ourselves; terrorism is what outsiders do to us. In our national narrative, the latter is by far considered more threatening.

            •More than 30,000 die each year in traffic accidents. When was the last time, before going to the grocery, you thought to yourself, “I wonder if it’s worth the risk?”

            •The average daily rate of gun deaths in the U.S. is nearly twice the body bag count from the Pulse nightclub. No other country in the world comes near our nation’s per capita gun ownership rate—which currently is about one for every man, woman and child, even though the per household gun ownership rate has dropped dramatically in the last generation. If you define a “mass shooting” as involving four or more casualties in a single event, we now average more than one per day in the U.S.

            But Congress continues to insist there’s nothing we can do.

            I suggest this is because “faith and freedom,” hallowed words in our history, have been hijacked, emptied of their meanings, and put into service of an imperial presence in the world.

            A week ago, at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s “Road to Majority” conference in Washington, D.C., Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) encouraged participants to pray for President Obama in a particular way, “like Psalm 109:8 says, ‘Let his days be few.’” It was a thinly-veiled death wish (if not an actual threat), since the following verse reads “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.”

            Why the Secret Service did not interrogate him, or put him on a “watch” list, is testimony to the hysterical season we are in. No problem, though—we can handle homegrown hysteria.


Preparing for the “long war”

            The distinction we make between hate crimes and terrorism is fatuous. The FBI’s own definition of terrorism has two principal clauses: violence that attempts to (1) intimidate or coerce civilian populations and/or (2) influences government policy. Hate crimes, by their name, attempt one or both of these clauses.

            •On average in the U.S., every two minutes a woman is assaulted by a man. How is this not a form of terrorism? Can you honestly say that the Orlando queer community does not feel terrorized?

            •In 2015 more toddlers killed Americans than terrorists.

            •There has yet to be an instance where a transgendered person sexually assaulted someone in a bathroom.

            I did not know until minutes ago that “long war” is a “partial conversion mod for the turn-based tactics video game XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its expansion, XCOM: Enemy Within.” I confess I do not know what the previous sentence means. I was looking for a citation for something else.

            Every four years the Pentagon releases its Quadrennial Defense Review. Typically it reviews the past and says, essentially, more of that. But in 2006 the report, with its opening sentence, sounded a more ominous note.

            “The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war."

            We are, in effect, on the threshold of a permanent war footing. This is likely the only thing our two presumptive presidential nominees agree on.

            This leading sentence from a document few citizens read helps explain social media’s continuing descent into puerile trivia, on the one hand, and anonymous venom on the other. It helps explain television and movie absorption with dystopian melodramas marked by nonstop shoot-em-up special effects. We have a constantly-evolving cast of elusive targets, constantly threatening to slip by security screenings, so terrifying they are referenced as the “undead.”

            Today, there was yet another moment of silence in the House of Representatives, by now a familiar tradition after mass murders in places where mass media has easy access. House Speaker Ryan, a devoted Roman Catholic, crossed himself. Silence in my own spiritual tradition is preparation for the Spirit's storm pushing me to risky places where I might not otherwise want to go. In this case, though, it was more like the House saying, "Don't look at us—we got nothing."

            A spontaneous prayer which—oddly, for a deep-water baptist—I’ve come to love, broke from my lips.

            “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

            And also with you. To meet this day will require the fearless presence of all who live in full awareness that death does not have the last word.

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©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org