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Domestic terrorism and hate crimes: legal definitions and media framing of mass shootings in the United States


Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter TerrorismJournal abstract
Identifying a criminal act as terrorism is a complicated task, influenced by strict legal definitions and public perceptions. While law enforcement must adhere to the criminal code in prosecuting violent extremist crime as terrorism, politicians, commentators and the media can symbolically label these acts as constituting a range of offences, regardless of whether they fit within legal definitions. Such disparity was evident in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church mass shooting when a white supremacist gunned down nine African Americans with the intention of sparking a race war. FBI Director James Comey was hesitant to apply the terrorism label claiming that it was not a political act and therefore did not classify as terrorism, while U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder had no reservations in labelling the crime an ‘act of terrorism’ (Norris, 2017, pp. 265–266). This paper explores two significant factors that contribute to the conceptual ambiguity surrounding far-right violent extremism as terrorism: the legal double standards in the treatment of ‘domestic’ terrorists under U.S. federal law, and the reinforcement of these double standards within the mass media.

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