Emily Hockett: Charlottesville as Terrorism?

cardboard sign that says "that was terrorism"

In the aftermath of the protests and counter-protests that happened this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia brought the subject of my research—the discourse of hate crimes and terrorism—into the mainstream. I followed the events in Charlottesville on Twitter, and found a common thread among posts to my (admittedly left-leaning) feed: Charlottesville is terrorism in America.

By calling what happened an Charlottesville an act of domestic terrorism, these posts challenge the selective application of the “terrorist” label to Muslims and people of color. I have learned through my research that white supremacist perpetrators of violence are rarely referred to as terrorists. 

This topic has been written about extensively, and I chose to shift the subject of my research in order to explore the legal and cultural statuses of terrorism. As I wrote about in my last blog post, I decided to shift the focus of my research to include hate crimes as well because I found so many other academics who had pointed out the racialization of terrorism in law and in culture. It was too obvious. It was clear that, while calling something “terrorism” in law or in society appears to characterize certain crimes as worthy of higher criminal penalty because of their political intentions, terrorism is a politicized, subjective category itself.

My research suggests that prosecutors use terrorism law much more than hate crimes law. Why? First, because they sometimes do not know about a possible bias motive in the first place. Training and protocol for responding to and flagging a possible hate crime varies from state-to-state and county-to-county, but most counties do not have appear to have a formal process in place to flag a potential bias motive when filing a report. Another reason prosecutors rarely use hate crimes statutes is because they carry a relatively small criminal penalty. So especially when prosecuting a serious crime, there is a high burden of proof for little prosecutorial reward.

Hate crimes are usually where a marginalized group is victimized because of their identity. The theoretical relationship between this category and that of terrorism has always confused me. Identity has always been. And now, in the age of identity politics, we are finally acknowledging the politics of marginalized identities. So if you are targeting someone based on the marginalized identity they hold (the definition of a hate crime) aren’t you committing a crime based on political motive (terrorism)? This same line of reasoning was used by many on my Twitter feed when seeking to categorize the violence in Charlottesville as terrorism.

But I find this discourse enormously concerning. On the night of August 12th, the day of the violence in Charlottesville, I was flying from California to New York. Before the initial boarding call, a message came over the loudspeaker telling us that the TSA would be doing randomized checks at the gate. I whispered to my girlfriend, “maybe because of Charlottesville?” As we walked up to the plane, we saw a white man waiting as his backpack was searched. I joked to my girlfriend that now white men (not black, brown, and Muslim-looking men) were finally the subjects of TSA’s “randomized” searches.

While this kind of equal opportunity racial profiling can feel satisfying, my research suggests it is ultimately ineffectual. After all, the discourse of terrorism is racist and Islamaphobic. While hate crime laws merely add criminal penalty to already criminal acts, terrorism laws (specifically the two material support statutes) criminalize non-criminal activity based on perceived political motive. This is dangerous.
What happened in Charlottesville was abhorrent. Terrifying. Disgusting. Culturally, it signifies the tacit legitimizing of white supremacist violence by the state. It was politically motivated. But we should not use the racist discourse of terrorism to describe it. Through its handling of terrorism in the last couple decades, the criminal justice system has proven incapable of adjudicating political motivation. Further, by attributing politics to violence, we suggest that ideas are the culprit, not individuals. This is, to me, poses a threat to the American project.

some light reading…
Trinity church outside my window!
10/10 would recommend