"I don't believe the American government's reports because they are confusing," Mostafa Mahfouz told the Boston Globe recently. Mahfouz's nephew, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, killed two people on July 4 at the Los Angeles International Airport and was shot dead by a security guard.
Mahfouz, a retired Egyptian general, is probably not slow. Nor is he alone. The question as to whether his nephew was a terrorist -- or something else -- would confuse anyone.
The FBI has so far refused to call the shooting a terrorist act because it did not know Hadayet to be affiliated with any terrorist groups. The bureau is investigating the attack as a possible hate crime, or as the desperate act of a depressed man. The American press, for the most part, has accepted the FBI's shrugged-shoulders classification.
But the Israeli government, along with many commentators in America and abroad, calls the Independence Day shooting an obvious terrorist attack. Indeed, some reports suggest that Hadayet may have had terrorist connections or motives unknown to the FBI. The London-based Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat said that authorities were investigating possible meetings between Hadayet and an al-Qaeda lieutenant. And the weekend after the attack, The New York Times interviewed a former employee of Hadayet's, who said that the man had definite anti-Israeli views.
If allegations of al-Qaeda connections pan out, the FBI will likely classify Hadayet's shootings as terrorism. But even if he acted as a lone anti-Semite, Hadayet's case exemplifies the crucial role of semantics in the war on terrorism. The definition of terrorism sets the boundaries of America's new war and determines which countries we attack, whom we investigate and who gets basic legal rights such as due process.
Although that definition is tough to nail down, the direction of the government's investigations so far suggests that who people are and whom they associate with -- not what they actually do -- makes them terrorists.
Consider the case of Jose Padilla, who was arrested and detained without trial or charge last May. The government claims that Padilla, a U.S. citizen, trucked around with some al-Qaeda members and planned to build a radioactive bomb. Government officials and journalists commonly refer to Padilla as a terrorist suspect, and although he has a record of violent crime he has not been formally charged for the alleged bomb plot.
Hadayet, on the other hand, had no criminal record and lived quietly before the LAX incident. The Egyptian citizen seemed to choose his targets deliberately, shooting for those waiting to board a flight on the Israeli airline El Al. But according to the FBI, his crime was probably not terrorism -- because the bureau didn't know he would commit it. So what is the difference between an act of terrorism and a hate crime?
Not all that much, the answer seems to be. Both are crimes of intent. When a federal hate-crime bill was up for passage in 1998, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) even made the case that "hate crimes are a form of terrorism." By the FBI's numbers, hate crimes have directly affected the lives of more Americans than terrorism, though in the past couple of years terrorism has left far more dead; of the nearly 10,000 hate crimes committed in the year 2000, only 19 were murders.
The most obvious difference between terrorism and hate crimes, though, is that America is fighting a war against one but not the other. While conviction of a hate crime leads to increased penalties and a possible death sentence for the guilty, the mere suspicion of terrorism can lead to detention without trial.
Hate crimes are directed against certain races, religious groups and their adherents. Though some hate crimes have seemed like the random work of violent bigots, the goal is often to strategically intimidate members of the targeted group. A burning cross is a sign that anyone can read; it says, "We don't want you here."
Terrorism, though it lacks a universal definition, generally means an attack on civilian targets with the intention of spreading fear and advancing a political agenda. Terrorism, like hate crimes, sends its victims a message. The burned shell of a bus, a bombed village and the great smoking ruins of the World Trade Center are an attempt to say, "We can defeat you."
But because they rely on criminals' motives, distinctions between terrorism and hate crimes are in many cases arbitrary. To members of al-Qaeda and groups like it, politics and religion are inseparable. Mullah Omar established a religious state, and the scattered members of the Taliban would ostensibly still like to. The same can be said of certain Zionist elements in Israel and some American neo-Nazi militias. Legally their crimes could make them terrorists, or hate criminals, or both.
Did Hadayet fire shots in the El Al terminal because he hated Jews or because he hated Israel? He probably didn't see a difference. And it doesn't matter much to his victims, as the July 7 Jerusalem Post reported: "The returning [El Al] passengers cared little about whether the attack is categorized as a terrorist attack or not. Most were simply happy to have escaped alive."