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What's the Difference Between Hate Crimes and Terrorism?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

After mass shootings like last weekend's Fuse nightclub massacre in Orlando or last year's church slayings in Charleston, people are left wondering whether the shooting can be classified as a hate crime, an act of terrorism, or both. Mass shootings that target a certain group of people based on their status or affiliation can be a hate crime. And mass shootings intended to intimidate or make a political statement can be acts of terrorism.

There are obviously instances, like Orlando and Charleston, where these definitions can seem to overlap, but how are the two crimes distinguished? What differentiates hate crimes from terrorism?


It's difficult to pin down what constitutes a hate crime and what doesn't. States often have their own hate crime statutes, so a hate crime in California might not be a hate crime in Alabama. Some states, like Georgia, Indiana, and Wyoming, don't have hate crime laws at all, and Louisiana recently passed a controversial law making it a hate crime to target law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Federally speaking, the Department of Justice may investigate and prosecute crimes under the Civil Rights Act, which defines a hate crime as: "willfully caus[ing] bodily injury to any person or, through the use of fire, a firearm, a dangerous weapon, or an explosive or incendiary device, attempts to cause bodily injury to any person, because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin." And in 2009 federal hate crime laws were updated to include crimes motivated by a victim's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.


Terrorism, on the other hand, is generally a federal manner. The U.S. Code classifies domestic terrorism as "activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended -- (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) 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." Mass shootings intended to instill fear or cause chaos can be prosecuted as terrorism.

It may be easy to distinguish between hate crimes and acts of terrorism by looking at who was targeted and why they were targeted. Crimes based on who the victims are may be hate crimes, while crimes intended to send a message may be acts of terrorism.

If you've been charged with terrorism, a hate crime, or any other criminal offense, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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