Like many others, I was glued to the news reports coming out of San Bernardino, Calif., on the afternoon of Dec. 2, 2015.
Fourteen people were dead at a public assistance nonprofit. One, perhaps two, suspects were still on the loose. As the manhunt ensued, most Americans wanted the answer to one question: why?
It’s a critical question that affects the way we react to such tragedies. Was it a jilted lover killing his estranged wife and her colleagues over workplace infidelity? Was it a terminated employee seeking revenge?
In both those tragic scenarios, the victim is a specific person or persons.
But in the case of terrorism, victims aren’t just the individuals killed or maimed. Victims are everybody in the targeted community. In San Bernardino, we were all intended victims of a hateful message delivered with a barrage of bullets: Americans aren’t safe from terror.
That’s why it is important to call the murder of Steven Nelson what it was: a hate crime.
On April 29, Nelson was targeted because he was gay. He was lured to Lake Lowell where he was stripped, robbed, and brutally beaten to death.
Unfortunately, the suspects in the case are immune from Idaho’s hate crime laws, which currently only protect victims on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.
In other words, had a person been targeted for his race, county prosecutors could charge the suspects with hate crimes.
So, why is this important? Because the victims of hate crimes are entire communities, not just individuals. With the murder of Steven Nelson, it was the LGBTQ community. And the message sent by the perpetrators is no different than others who use violence to instill terror. That message is: You’re not safe. That’s what hate crimes are. They’re acts of terrorism against a community.
Yet some people argue that enhanced penalties for hate crimes somehow values one group over another. This is simply incorrect. If the victim at Lake Lowell had been targeted due to his race and the suspects were charged with state hate crimes, that wouldn’t devalue me as a white person. Justice is not a zero-sum game. What’s more, hate crime laws do not address a victim’s value — all victims have value — instead, hate crimes address perpetrators’ motive.
And motives matter.
That’s why the No. 1 question in the San Bernardino terrorist attacks was motive. There are huge differences between domestic or workplace violence and terrorism. Those differences have nothing to do with the value of the victims. The differences have to do with the effects of the crime.
In the case of Steven Nelson’s murder, the effect to the gay and transgender community is chilling and clear. It reminds us that Idaho can be a very dangerous place to live. It reminds us that some people’s minds are still so laced with hate that we may not be safe in our own communities.
It reminds us of terror.
Jordan Brady is the research director of Better Idaho, a progressive nonprofit organization dedicated to building a fair, equitable and prosperous state.