For a family it probably matters very little what ideology or beliefs drive a person to attempt to harm or kill their loved one. But the consequences and repercussions often vary greatly depending on what group is behind it.
A college aged student who attempts to travel to Syria to join ISIS can be sentenced to federal prison for over ten years even if he fails to make it as far as the airplane. The federal offense most often used is “providing material support” to a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The same college aged student would not be charged for some of the same acts when done to support a group like the Ku Klux Klan or Atomwaffen (another, more recent violent hate group with a number of homicides linked to its members across the United States).
Benjamin McDowell, an avowed white supremacist, recently pleaded guilty to a charge of a felon in possession of a firearm. He attempted to purchase the firearm from an undercover FBI agent during a sting. During the investigation McDowell told an undercover FBI source “I seen what Dylann Roof did. I want to do that” referring to the horrific mass murder of nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015. McDowell sought a weapon so that he could carry out another hate-inspired attack on African Americans in South Carolina. There is no ambiguity about his plans. McDowell was sentenced to two years and nine months. If instead of being a white supremacist intent on provoking a racial holy war, McDowell had said he wanted to commit the exact same crime to support ISIS, he could instead be facing decades in prison.
There is no question that violence inspired by hateful ideologies is a serious problem - not because of the number of attacks but because of the far reaching impact each act or attempted act of violence has on our nation. The issue here is the difference in how the criminal justice system treats teroristic violence depending on an identity of the perpetrator.
Such disparaties in our legal system contribute to a lack of trust between communities and law enforcement. It is something that criminal justice reformers have known for decades. These disparaties arose in the “war on drugs” and now similar issues exist in the “war on terror.” While the underlying reasons for prevention and early intervention of targeted violence are compelling despite these disparaties, it is extremely challenging to start the prevention conversation because of the lack of trust.
For example, during a recent training for public health professionals and law enforcement on how to provide greater awareness to the community on hate-inspired targeted violence, this issue was zeroed in on very quickly as a cause for concern by some of the public health professionals in the room. This issue comes up over and over again at the community-level.
How America treats violence differently depending on aspects of a perpetrator’s identity is a matter of concern throughout the criminal justice system. The solution is to improve our laws in order to eliminate irrational disparities. In the meantime it is important for those who are doing outreach and trust-building with communities, whether they are a part of law enforcement, public health programs, or some other government agency, to know about these disparities and be equipped to discuss them openly and knowingly. Acknowledging the problem and having genuine shared concern can go a long way towards building trust.