The Pulse Nightclub Shooting: Terrorism, Hate Crime…Neither?

A closer look at the evidence surrounding the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting

The June 12, Pulse nightclub shooting has been classified by President Obama as both a hate crime and as a terrorist attack. The associations made to hate crime and terrorist attack are obvious –  Pulse is an LGBTQ nightclub, the gunman, Omar Mateen, had pledged allegiance to ISIS. In the attack he killed 49 individuals and injured an additional 53 in what is being labeled the worst terror attack in the United States since 9/11.  

Is there evidence to support the claim that the shooting was both a hate crime and a terrorist attack? People act for a variety of reasons which makes it all the more possible that the shooting could be classified as both. Just days after the shooting Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch and FBI Director James Comey labeled the attack as both a hate crime and act of Islamic terrorism. Which supported the statement made by President Obama (WP). To determine if the labels are accurate let’s compare the facts and evidence readily accessible to the public with the FBI’s definitions of domestic terrorism and hate crime.

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as activities with the following three characteristics:

  •      Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;

  •      Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

  •       Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

According to the FBI, the only known definitive connection between Mateen and ISIS was his declaration of allegiance to the group while on the phone with a 911 operator.  On later phone calls with crisis negotiators, Mateen stated that there was a car filled with explosives outside the club and he would not hesitate to blow it up. According to Director Comey, Mateen had been the subject of a terrorism-related investigation in 2013 and 2014. The phone calls and the prior investigations of Mateen show and established a connection to radical jihadism. The Pulse club shooting definitely fits the first and third criteria of the definition, it’s the second criterion that is problematic. The second criterion refers to an offender’s motivation for his or her actions. It is arguable that his declaration of allegiance to ISIS was an attempt at intimidation but without a manifesto or other source about Mateen’s motivation for the attack it cannot be proven and therefore cannot legally be labeled as terrorism.

The FBI defines a hate crime “as 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.” Notice how hate itself is not a crime as free speech is protected right. Hate crime cases are generally handled by state or local authorities.

The FBI has found no evidence suggesting that Pulse was chosen because of its LGBTQ clientele. It was even reported by the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen visited Pulse at least a dozen times before the attack. These visits could constitute intelligence gathering for the attack but that has yet to be proven (or disclosed). Until the information becomes public, the visits should be taken at face value (meaning he was a regular at Pulse).

A hate crime, according to the FBI, is defined by the biases of the offender, not by the selected target. If Mateen chose Pulse because he was familiar with the location then it is not a hate crime, if he chose it because of the clientele than it is.   

This perspective may offend some but calling things what they are is a vital part of the American justice system. When politicians and other leaders use labels and legal jargon, the public expects them to use the terminology accurately. Framing and labeling the event and individual a certain way can lead to a deprivation of a just judicial proceeding. Until proven otherwise, let’s call the attack what it legally is, a mass shooting.