Why We Need to Call the Orlando Attack a Hate Crime

This weekend’s massacre at Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Fla., was the worst shooting in U.S. history, yet we can’t seem to nail down what this event actually was: terrorism, a hate crime or both. And why does that even matter?

It matters because language changes the way people and courts treat the event. By only calling this a terrorist attack, you erase LGBT people from this, even if the difference is slight. And that’s a huge problem.

The FBI defines terrorism as an act that is “dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law, appears intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” 

Translation: terrorism is used to intimidate people into changing laws or government through violence. It’s not specific to one race or religion, which is a common misconception. Anyone, of any race, gender, or religion, can perpetrate terrorism.

Furthermore, U.S. officials are saying there’s no solid evidence linking ISIS to this event, even though they’re jumping to take credit, according to the Guardian. And as President Barack Obama said today, calling this event “radical Islamic terrorism” won’t do much to solve the problem.

So where does the hate crime categorization come in? Calling an event a hate crime can enhance existing charges, like assault or murder. Charges that are prosecuted as hate crimes can receive stricter punishments, according to BBC. A hate crime is defined as an act “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation,” which is exactly what we saw in Orlando.

So was this both terrorism and a hate-crime?

The answer in short is yes, but the conversation doesn’t need to stop there. The reason why using both matters is because they are treated differently by the public. We have to acknowledge that this was a hate crime against LGBT people.

Today, we use terrorism as terminology to express an attack against the United States and its ideals as a whole. So when you call the Orlando attack an act of terrorism, Americans are expected to feel it as an attack against all of us. But this also runs the risk of erasing the specific group of people who the shooting really targeted against: the LGBT community.

Politicians use these buzzwords like terrorism and “radical Islam” to stir up hatred towards Muslims. Even Obama said today that the words do nothing.

“There’s no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam,'” he said. “It’s a political talking point.”

When we say this is an act against Americans without acknowledging LGBT people’s struggle, it’s the same as erasing the fact that LGBT people were targeted, and it’s already happening. Politicians, including Florida Governor Rick Scott, have said repeatedly that this was a terrorist attack directed at all Americans — leaving LGBT people out of it.

“This is a time of great tragedy, and in every tragedy, there is a flood of sadness, confusion and despair… But, this is an attack on our people. An attack on Orlando. An attack on Florida. An attack on America. An attack on all of us,” the Governor said.

Another sad fact about this is that Orlando’s tragedy isn’t even the first time the LGBT community has been disregarded in the importance of their own tragedy.

Before the Pulse massacre, the most fatal act of violence against a gay safe-space or club was the burning of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in New Orleans in 1973 according to Slate. An arsonist set the bar on fire, killing 32 people in less than 20 minutes. No one was even arrested for the arson because it was not properly investigated, partially due to the fact that most of the victims were gay.

Even more recently, a man on his way to the L.A. pride event was arrested Sunday morning with a ton of explosives and rifles. He even told police after he was arrested that his intent was to “to harm Gay Pride event.”

Yet another reason we have to treat the event in Orlando as a hate crime. The LGBT community’s struggle is not over. We should be standing with them, not belittling their fight and making it ours without acknowledgment.

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