After Portland And London, It’s Time To Change How We Talk Terrorism

"Hate crime" has become America's safety phrase.

“Terrorism” may be a buzzword in American media, but the Portland and London terror attacks prove that the word isn’t used as frequently as one might think. A few days after the Portland attack, President Trump issued a tweet using his official (and far less popular) presidency account, calling the attack “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, it only took a few hours after the attack in London for Trump to tweet his support ― and even use the attack as an example for why his travel ban ought to be reinstated.

This difference in responses has led some to believe that Trump only responds to attacks that support his presidential agenda – and his mentality that Muslims are the world’s sole terrorists even if white people commit acts of violence. However, Trump’s responses have also contributed to an even larger conversation: that it’s time to stop calling incidents with white perpetrators hate crimes and start calling them domestic terrorism.

President Trump and Vice President Pence’s Twitter reactions to the Portland attack portray the incident as a hate crime rather than an act of terrorism – but they’re not the only ones hesitant to use the t-word. Even top politicians in Oregon evaded the term. Governor Kate Brown responded to the Portland attack by saying that “hate is absolutely unacceptable.” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called the attack a “horrific act of racist violence.” It seems that people aren’t just afraid of terrorist actions, but in some cases, the word “terrorism” itself. Instead, the phrase “hate crime” has become America’s safety phrase, a way of addressing a problem in American culture without changing the general understanding of terrorism. Is this a good thing? Not exactly.

A hate crime and domestic terrorism are two different things, at least according to the federal government. Still, a closer analysis shows that hate crimes can lead to, or simply be, acts of domestic terrorism. According to the FBI, a hate crime is a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Offenses include vandalism, arson, or even murder. On the other hand, the FBI defines domestic terrorism as “the unlawful use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual based and operating entirely within the United States or Puerto Rico, without foreign direction committed against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” The only difference in the two definitions is that domestic terrorism’s definition clearly specifies that the terrorist is not directed by a group outside of the country. The domestic terrorism definition also specifies that the terrorist commits the act to intimidate the government or civilians. However, these aren’t even major differences, considering hate crimes can also be caused by biases that are totally homegrown.

In February, a Jackson, MS man came home to “KKK” scribbled on his door, a fire in his home, and a letter referring to him using the N-word. The KKK is a popular inspiration for hate crimes and began in the U.S. Plus, even though some hate crimes target one or two persons, hate crimes can still be used to target entire populations. This past week, an Arizona woman woke up to the N-word scribbled two times on her house, along with the messages “N***** leave” and “Trump was here.” If an entire population on American soil is being targeted, especially using violent actions, it’s domestic terrorism.

Hate crimes aren’t often called domestic terrorism because such a broad array of offenses can constitute a hate crime. The offense in a hate crime isn’t always something violent like murder, but that doesn’t mean hate crimes can’t lead to violence. In March, Portland resident Hasel Afshar found his home vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti, slashed furniture, and a death note reading, “If I see you here next month, I will shoot you and burn your house” – as if the graffiti’d wall reading “GET OUT OF US, YOU WILL DIE HERE” wasn’t enough. In February, a Colorado homeowner found his home vandalized with racial slurs saying that browns or Indians “shouldn’t be here.” A prime example is suspect Jeremy Joseph Christian of the Portland terror attack, who had shown potential for violence before, giving Nazi salutes and yelling the N-word at a Portland parade in April. Threats like these should be taken as signs of impending violence. The FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism says that even just the threat of violence against the victim(s) is enough for an incident to be considered domestic terrorism. So, why are people not using the word?

The reason is simple: comfort. Not only are many Americans comfortable with using terrorism solely to refer to international incidents like what has happened in Manchester, Kabul and London, but many Americans are also comfortable with ignoring the problem of white supremacists. Two days before two people were killed on a Portland train for standing up to white supremacy, Alabama passed a law securing the prevalence of the confederate flag in the name of American/Alabaman history. This isn’t a history that needs to be preserved. If it was, confederate flags would be in a museum, and not carried around by terrorists like Dylann Roof. Plus, elected officials like New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu wouldn’t be receiving death threats for trying to take the confederate flag down. White supremacy is domestic terrorism. It’s time to start taking it just as seriously as international terrorism, by tracking racist networks like the KKK and eradicating them.

ISIS-inspired terrorism is no hoax, but neither are threats posed by white supremacists towards communities of color. Terrorism can’t just be addressed in terms of ISIS or other internationally inspired events. We need to address any kind of terrorism that arises on American soil instead of letting it pass as a part of American history.