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  • Alex Pack

Hate Crime or Terrorism? - Buffalo, NY Attack (14 May 2022)

Is it a hate crime? Is it terrorism? It's a definitional issue.

**Content Warning: This post contains certain sections from the attacker's manifesto and still-images from a recording of the attack. Efforts have been made to redact graphic material, but given the topic the material may still be distressing to some readers.

On 14 May 2022, ten people were tragically murdered in a senseless act of violence in #Buffalo, New York. Dressed in body armor, a helmet, and wielding a large caliber weapon, the attacker systematically moved through a supermarket murdering anyone who fit his victim profile. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Erie County Sheriff claimed that the attack was a "straight up racially motivated hate crime." Similarly, multiple tweets appeared questioning whether this attack actually qualifies as #terrorism or is simply a #hatecrime.

This is not the first time that the questions of whether an attack should be labeled as a hate crime or terrorism have arisen. After Dylann Roof, a #whitesupremacist, executed a shooting attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, he was charged and later convicted of a federal hate crime. Similarly, James Fields, the attacker who murdered civil rights activist Heather Heyer and seriously injured 30 others in a ramming attack in #Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, was convicted of 29 hate crime charges, but not terrorism. The logic of not charging these--and other similar--individual-initiative attackers with terrorism has been repeatedly questioned by practitioners, researchers, and members of the public.

When looking at this most recent attack in #Buffalo, it seems clear that this was a racially motivated attack. But, was it terrorism?

Terrorism: A Definitional Challenge

To label any attack as terrorism or not, requires a clear definition of what terrorism is. Unfortunately, there is no internationally recognized consensus definition with different states and international coalitions developing their own, unique, definitions. The challenges for #counterterrorism due to the differences inherent in these separate definitions and the lack of international consensus are well documented in the terrorism literature.

To combat these policy issues, scholars and practitioners have tried to identify the core elements that characterize terrorist attacks in order to produce more accurate definitions. The Global Terrorism Database at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism defines terrorism as "the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a nonstate actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation." Similarly, Prof. Bruce Hoffman suggests that terrorism is "violence—or equally important, the threat of violence—used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim." The conceptual similarities between these two definitions are summarized in the one which will be used for this post, which comes from Prof. Boaz Ganor. Ganor defines terrorism as:

"a form of violent struggle in which violence is deliberately used against civilians in order to achieve political goals (nationalistic, socioeconomic, ideological, religious, etc.”

Using Ganor's definition, there are three primary characteristics for an attack to be defined as terrorism:

  1. The attack needs to include violence or the threat of violence

  2. The violence must be directed at civilians

  3. The attacker must be motivated by political (nationalistic, socioeconomic, ideological, religious, etc.) goals

Buffalo Attack - Terrorism?

In the immediate aftermath of a mass-shooting, it is often difficult to immediately determine if it was terrorism or simply a criminal act. But, in this instance, it appears that the Buffalo attack has all three of the necessary characteristics to be defined as terrorism.

Use of Violence

The attacker intended to and successfully utilized violence. Dressed in military paraphernalia--including body armor and a ballistic helmet, and armed with a large caliber weapon, the individual-initiative attacker began his assault in the parking lot and eventually entered a supermarket. By the time of his capture he was able to murder ten people and injure three more.

His manifesto also made explicit references to his intention to utilize violence. Like many in the followers of accelerationist ideology, he argues that no political solutions exist for their perceived issues, and thus violence is the only appropriate response.

Excerpt from the the manifesto highlighting the attacker's focus on utilizing violence. Sections have been redacted in order to not amplify the extremist's ideology.

The use of language supporting violence in his manifesto and his ultimate use of violence during the attack both are indicative of the first criterion for an attack to be considered terrorism: use of violence.

Violence Directed at Civilians

One issue when trying to define an attack as terrorism or not-terrorism relates to the intended target. Under some definitions of terrorism, violence directed at anyone could be considered terrorism. The problem with this argument is that it makes the definition of terrorism overly broad and harms the ability to effectively identify and combat the specific actions. Narrower definitions of the target population are more common, but these still have conceptual issues. For example, are military targets considered #terrorism or #guerrilla warfare? If the term used to describe the intended targets is "innocents," who gets to define who is innocent and who is not?

Ganor offers a solution to this problem with a very narrow definition of who must be targeted for an attack to be considered terrorism. In his book, The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle, Ganor argues that for an attack to be labeled terrorism, the intended targets have to be "civilians," distinguishing them from other types of targets such as military or law enforcement.

The attacker in Buffalo could have chosen any target for his shooting attack, but chose to travel hours from his home to specifically target the "Tops Friendly Market," a civilian store. The writings in his manifesto make his intention to target civilians clearer. On one page he wrote that he targeted this particular store because it had the highest percentage of his target population in the area. Additionally, he explicitly states his intention to not target non-civilian populations such as law enforcement personnel, saying that it would "make [him] very upset if [he] killed one."

Excerpt from the the manifesto highlighting the attacker's choice not to target "enforcers of the state" (e.g., police or military).

The attacker's intentional choice to avoid non-civilian targets--such as law enforcement--and explanations for why he targeted a civilian supermarket are indicative of the second criterion for an attack to be considered terrorism: violence directed at civilians.

Political/Nationalistic/Ideological/Religious/Etc. Motivation

The third criterion for an attack to be labeled terrorism is that it must be "used and directed in pursuit of, or in service of, a political aim;" meaning that the attack must be political, nationalistically, ideologically, or religiously motivated. Generally, in mass-shooting attacks, it is challenging to immediately determine whether the attack was a direct result of one of these motivations or not. As a result, labeling the incident as a terrorist attack is difficult.

But, in the case of the Buffalo attack, the attacker's motivations are abundantly clear. The first, and most prominent indicator of his motivations come from his manifesto. Throughout the document he repeatedly references the white supremacist "great replacement" and "white genocide" conspiracies which suggest that white populations are being systematically replaced by non-white and immigrant populations. Repeatedly citing these conspiracies, the manifesto argues that an attack against these non-white populations is necessary to push-back against the "replacement."

Excerpt from the the manifesto highlighting the attacker's motivation for attacking. Specifically encouraging others carry out attacks against "replacers"--a term used by him to refer to non-white populations. Sections have been redacted in order to not amplify the extremist's ideology.

These "great replacement" and "white genocide" conspiracy theories has been cited multiple times by individual-initiative terrorist attackers, such as Robert Bowers, the 2018 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania attacker; Brenton Tarrant, the 2019 Christchurch New Zealand attacker; and Patrick Crusius, the 2019 El Paso, Texas attacker. Now, as then, it appears that the conspiracy theory served as the primary political and ideological motivation for the attack.

In addition to his manifesto, the attacker also showcased his ideological motivations on the weapon he used to execute the attack. Screen shots captured from the video of his attack showcase different different phrases and symbols scrawled on the outside of his weapon in white. This practice was also used by Brenton Tarrant, during his attack in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019.

An image of weapon used in Christchurch, NZ attack, with phrases, symbols, and names written in white.

A screen shot taken from a video of the attack in Buffalo, highlighting the white text written on the attackers weapon.

Like in New Zealand, the attacker in Buffalo many of the text and symbols scrawled on the weapon were well-known white supremacist and white nationalist. For example, both attackers wrote the number "14" where it was clearly visible on the weapon. In the lexicon of the far-right, "14" is a short-hand for an important phrase in white supremacist ideology: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children." This phrase represents the common white supremacist belief that if they do not take action, the white race will eventually face extinction, mirroring the ideas of the "great replacement" and "white genocide" theories.

An annotated image of the weapon used by the New Zealand attacker, with references to the "14 words" highlighted in boxes.

An annotated screen shot, taken from video of the attack, highlighting a reference to the "14 words" on the weapon of the Buffalo attacker.

The repeated references to the white supremacist "great replacement" and "white genocide" conspiracy theories, and statements of intended violence against perceived "invaders" or "replacers" in the attackers manifesto, combined with the placement of known white supremacist symbols on his weapon suggests a clear ideological motivation for the attack.

Terrorism or Hate Crime?

In many mass shootings--or similar attacks--it is often difficult to determine whether the attack was simply murder, a hate crime, or terrorism. However, in this case of the attacker in #Buffalo, the appropriate label seems clear: terrorism. Ganor's comprehensive definition of terrorism suggests that three elements are necessary for an element to be deemed terrorism In this instance all three elements were met, with the (i) attacker deliberately using violence, (ii) against civilians, (iii) as a result of his political and ideological motivations.

A careful examination of open-source intelligence suggests that this attack was terrorism. But, several prominent leaders and public officials have suggested that the attack was either a hate crime or simply a murder. For example, Kathy Hochul, the Government of New York, referred to the attack as a "hate crime," when she stated that it was her "sincere hope that this individual, this white supremacist who just perpetrated a hate crime on an innocent community, will spend the rest of his days behind bars. And heaven help him in the next world as well." Similarly, in a press conference on 18 May 2022, Broome County District Attorney (DA) Michael Korchak suggested that the attack was "just murder as far as [he was] concerned." While the DA did eventually clarify his position, suggesting that it was a domestic terror attack, his initial statements continue to highlight the trends of public officials misidentifying attacks.

While the issue of mislabeling an attack may seem relatively insignificant, it can have substantial policy implications. First, mislabeling a terror attack as a regular crime or a hate crime may potentially limit the actions that law enforcement can take in the course of their investigation. Similarly, it may limit the potential punishments that can be given to the attacker if found guilty in a criminal trial. Additionally, mislabeling increases the difficulty in accurately measuring, analyzing, and mapping the impact of different types of violence across the United States. While this list of impacts is not exhaustive, it is evident that properly labeling terrorist attacks is imperative. As such, leaders and public officials should carefully consider all of the available intelligence before publicly labeling any attack. Failure to do so, may significantly limit their ability to respond to the growing threat of domestic terrorists.

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