Posted by Guest on June 07, 2017 in Blog

By Sarah Decker

Thirty-five-year-old Jeremy Joseph Christian boarded a Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) light rail train in Portland, Oregon last Friday. What follows is a disturbing image of the ways in which anti-Muslim bigotry has permeated the experiences of American Muslims in every aspect of their daily lives, including their commutes home from work or school. Christian reportedly verbally assaulted two African-American teenagers, one who was wearing a hijab. Among other racist insults, he told them to “pay taxes” and “go back to Saudi Arabia.” As Christian continued with his outburst, several bystanders, most notably Micah Fletcher, 21, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, and Ricky John Best, 53, intervened, placing themselves in between Christian and the young women. Christian proceeded to severely wound Fletcher and fatally stab Namkai-Meche and Best. The attack took place on the first day of Ramadan.

But the Portland stabbing is not just another example of the rise in anti-Muslim bigotry. The tragic murders of Namkai-Meche and Best also provide a legal opportunity to challenge hate and its connection to terrorism. This opportunity comes in the form of how Christian will be charged: with murder, a hate crime, or an act of domestic terrorism. 

Christian has a known criminal history and extremist views. Although Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called Friday's stabbing attack on a MAX train an act of terrorism, the matter is complicated by reports from Portland Police Bureau Sgt. Pete Simpson that Christian’s speech was not specifically directed towards Muslims and his behavior was visibly erratic. 

Legally, hate crimes are not considered separate charges, but an “enhancement” to an existing charge, in this case murder and assault. Prosecutors use this option to increase the severity of the punishment for these crimes. In the U.S., a hate crime is generally defined as motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against, for example, a race, ethnic origin, or religion. 

Domestic terrorism, as an entirely different charge, involves several identifying components: the use of violence to achieve political goals primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States, the endangerment of human life, and the apparent intent to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.

Christian currently faces nine charges: two counts of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, first-degree assault, three counts of an unlawful use of a weapon, and two counts of intimidation. The aggravated murder charges carry a maximum penalty of death. Although the specifics of time served are decided by individual juries, who gets charged as a terrorist has semantic value when discussed by politicians and media platforms. 

Many of the most successful U.S. terrorism prosecutions have been against suspects with links to foreign organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL, while domestic organizations and individuals, especially neo-Nazis and white supremacists are often charged with organized crime and weapons violations. According to Southern Poverty Law Center’s Heidi Beirich, if a prosecutor can get the death penalty without having to prove hate-based intent they will often do so, meaning that the most heinous hate crimes in the U.S. have not necessarily been prosecuted under hate crimes law. 

Yet labelling Christian’s crimes is not exclusively about the terms of his sentencing, but rather the symbolism involved. President Trump’s statements concerning violence and discrimination against immigrants and minorities reflect his disturbing lack of condemnation of these crimes. For example, when Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro asked President Trump about the recent anti-Semetic threats and vandalism in Philadelphia, Trump replied by suggesting that “the reverse may be true.” While the exact meaning of this comment is unclear, the statement appears to question the underlying fact of increased anti-Semetic actions. In addition, although he issued five different proclamations on May 31st recognizing June as for example, “Great Outdoors Month” and “National Ocean Month,” the president failed to release anything related to LGBTQ Pride Month or Immigrant Heritage Month

The Trump administration’s patterned lack of recognition for minority rights and representation mimics the symbolic down-playing of crimes that meet the criteria of hate crimes or acts of domestic terrorism. This symbolism could have an impact on the public perception of the Oregon stabbings, especially in the context of the Trump administration’s domestic and foreign policies towards Arabs and Muslims.

For this reason, the ways in which we use the label terrorism, with its vague definition that allows for selective application, must be adjusted to reflect the actual standards of the federal charge. Instead of focusing on the identity of the perpetrator, his or her religion or ethnic origin, the determination of whether an act should be deemed terrorism should rely on the identity of the victims and the intent behind the attack. If an attack is committed violently against a civilian population in order to coerce or intimidate under a political objective, it constitutes terrorist activity. 

Under Trump’s administration, hate has become highly political, which calls into question whether crimes like the Portland stabbings constitute hate crimes or the more charged label of domestic terrorism. While President Trump did condemn the killings of the two Portland Good Samaritans, calling the crime “unacceptable,” there remains a highly visible connection between Trump’s rhetoric and policies towards immigrants and the rise in crimes like this MAX attack. The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report in November 2016 documenting over 900 such incidents in the ten days following Trump’s election. In addition, the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University found that hate crimes increased 21 percent in major metropolitan areas in 2016.

Christian’s actions were political in aim – many of his comments reflected the sentiment that “Muslims don’t belong in America.” Trump’s foreign and domestic policies, most notably the Muslim ban, have definitively politicized hate by relying on anti-Muslim rhetoric. They have in many ways validated white supremacist hate groups, inspiring violence and actions that should be considered acts of domestic terrorism. SPLC’s Heidi Beirich told U.S. News that "there's a 'safe space' for hate that didn't exist before," referencing the influence of Trump’s rhetoric on the increase in national hate crimes. 

As of June 7, Christian was charged by the Multnomah County grand jury with two counts of aggravated murder, attempted murder, two counts of second-degree intimidation, and being a felon in possession of a restricted weapon. Federal authorities are currently examining his extremist ideology and will decide if the acts constitute a hate crime or an act of domestic terrorism. Reactions to his sentencing will help further frame how the Trump administration handles non-Muslim terrorists and the implications on both foreign and domestic policies involving Arab and Muslim Americans.

Sarah Decker is a summer 2017 intern at the Arab American Institute.