“White men invoking white supremacy and engaging in mass shootings are almost immune from being labeled domestic terrorists.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., has tried to make the case that the U.S. government’s handling of terrorism cases is racist – and she has repeatedly failed.
The freshman congresswoman brought up the idea Wednesday at a congressional hearing on white supremacy. Then, on Thursday, she retweeted a viral NowThis video of herself talking on the House floor, and added some commentary.
“When a mass shooting is committed by a Muslim, the crime is almost automatically labeled as Domestic Terrorism,” she said. “But when White Supremacists like Dylann Roof shot up a black church, or attack the Tree of Life Synagogue, the FBI declined to charge them w/ Domestic Terrorism.”
“Why?” she asked.
When a mass shooting is committed by a Muslim, the crime is almost automatically labeled as Domestic Terrorism.
But when White Supremacists like Dylann Roof shot up a black church, or attack the Tree of Life Synagogue, the FBI declined to charge them w/ Domestic Terrorism.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) May 18, 2019
In her stumbling comments in Congress, which came during her questioning of anti-white supremacy activists, Ocasio-Cortez further explained her suspicions. She said that she had – supposedly reluctantly – identified a racial double standard in federal terrorism prosecutions.
“I can’t help but come to the conclusion that these labels, what’s being labeled as terrorism is almost exclusively coming down to the identity,” she said. “And it seems as though white men invoking white supremacy and engaging in mass shootings are almost immune from being labeled domestic terrorists in their violence.”
Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly suggested that white supremacy is a major cause of violence, as well as other U.S. social and political problems. But in this case, as in many others, her claims seem to be more ideological than factual.
Leaving aside that the FBI doesn’t bring charges – it only recommends them – “domestic terrorism” isn’t even a crime. So, the agency can’t reasonably be expected charge anyone with it.
The 2001 Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism as a “dangerous” act that violates the law in an attempt to intimidate civilians or influence government policy. But rather than creating a new crime, it gives law enforcement officials broader powers to prosecute existing ones.
Ocasio-Cortez may have simply misspoken. Perhaps she was thinking of the federal law against providing material support to terrorists, which can be used against U.S. citizens who perpetrate violence.
However, there’s a reason that the law is rarely used against white supremacists. It only applies to attacks that use bombs or radiological weapons, target U.S. government employees or property or are carried out on behalf of one of the nearly 60 foreign terrorist organization recognized by the State Department. Almost all the groups on the list are Islamist; none are white supremacist.
A comparable list of domestic terrorist groups does not exist because it could violate the First Amendment by criminalizing unpopular ideas.
The upshot is that it’s much harder to charge a white supremacist with crimes related to domestic terrorism compared to a Muslim extremist.
Neither Roof, who was sentenced to death for the 2015 Charleston church shooting, nor Robert Gregory Bowers, who has been charged with last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, could have been prosecuted under the material support law. Instead, they were both charged with hate crimes.
Some liberals have made a more sophisticated case than Ocasio-Cortez that U.S. terrorism laws themselves are biased; but they have typically argued for treating Muslim Americans like other attackers – not vice versa, as the congresswoman seemed to suggest.
Regardless, it is not clear that Muslim suspects “almost automatically” labeled domestic terrorists, as Ocasio-Cortez stated.
To name just two prominent examples, Kori Ali Muhammad was not charged with terrorism for the 2017 Fresno shootings, nor was Nidal Hasan, who was convicted of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.
Meanwhile, a number of states have passed their own terrorism laws that make it easier to prosecute white men. For instance, in 2017, New York charged James Harris Jackson with first- and second-degree murder as an act of terrorism for allegedly stabbing a black man to death.
“We must never take for granted New York’s remarkable diversity,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance at the time. “We must celebrate it, protect it, and refuse to let violence and hate undermine the progress we have made as a city, a state, and a nation.”