Hate Crimes, Domestic Terrorism Not ‘Mutually Exclusive’

Thomas Brzozowski, domestic terrorism counsel for the Justice Department, spoke about the challenges the department faces when trying domestic terrorists.

program on extremism
Thomas Brzozowski, domestic terrorism counsel for the Justice Department's National Security Division, speaks with journalist P.J. Tobia during a GW Program on Extremism event. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
January 10, 2018

By Kristen Mitchell

Understanding how the federal government handles criminal cases after violent incidents widely considered to be domestic terrorism can be tricky, said Thomas Brzozowski, domestic terrorism counsel for the Justice Department's National Security Division. While federal statute defines domestic terrorism, it is not a chargeable offense.

Mr. Brzozowski spoke about the current state of domestic terrorism in the United States during a Program on Extremism event at the Elliott School of International Affairs Tuesday. Defendants are likely to face hate crime or weapons-related charges in the federal system because they cannot be charged with domestic terrorism or federal murder, which focuses on a narrow set of cases often involving public officials or law enforcement.

The nature of the charges, however, tend to drive how the public perceives the government response to violent acts, Mr. Brzozowski said.

Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine African American people in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015, was convicted on 33 federal counts of hate crimes. Mr. Roof’s crimes were characterized almost exclusively in terms of hate in the public sphere, even though they fit the definition of domestic terrorism as well.

“I’m not saying that’s bad, but what I’m saying is that misses something,” Mr. Brzozowski said. “It misses the fact that this is clearly one of the most egregious acts of domestic terrorism that has occurred in our country in recent times.”

When people like Mr. Roof are not labeled domestic terrorists by the government, it may cause the public to determine there is discrimination involved in the government’s efforts to combat domestic terrorism, Mr. Brzozowski said. Each case is steered by specific facts and circumstances, and the nature of every case cannot be determined just by looking at the charges filed, he said.

“Just because someone is charged with a hate crime does not mean they are not necessarily domestic terrorists as well,” Mr. Brzozowski said. “Hate crimes and domestic terrorism are not mutually exclusive.”

Justice Department officials are more likely to publically brand an event domestic terrorism after criminal proceedings have concluded to avoid muddying any investigation, he said.

Common misconceptions about domestic terrorism include the idea that individuals must belong to a group to be considered terrorists. Violence done in service of ideology, not group membership, is key in determining if a violent act is terrorism, Mr. Brzozowski said.

Terrorism is also not new to the United States— the country has faced domestic terrorism since its founding. President William McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901, an act that would be deemed terrorism today.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of GW’s Program on Extremism, said it is important to discuss the characteristics of domestic terrorism at this moment. In August, white supremacists held protests in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in violence and one death, and just recently a man with ties to white nationalism was charged with terrorism-related crimes after he tried to derail an Amtrak train in rural Nebraska.

“This is a conversation we need to have in the U.S.,” Mr. Hughes said. “This is a conversation the Program on Extremism is happy to be leading.”

Following his presentation, Mr. Brzozowski discussed his work with P.J. Tobia, a foreign affairs producer at PBS NewsHour, and took questions from the audience.

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