Terrorism or hate crime?

U.S. authorities apply different labels to crimes committed by two extremists -- one Muslim, the other Jewish.

Published April 17, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

On Independence Day last summer, a depressed 41-year-old Muslim immigrant by the name of Hesham Mohamed Hadayet, whose views on the Arab-Israeli conflict had become increasingly extreme, approached the ticket counter of the Israeli-run El Al airline at Los Angeles International Airport. Loaded down with a recently purchased .45-caliber semiautomatic Glock pistol, a 9 mm handgun and a 6-inch knife, he opened fire. During a 30-second rampage, Hadayet emptied the 10-round revolver, killing two people and injuring scores more, before an El Al security guard shot him dead.

Six weeks later, in Tampa, Fla., a depressed Jewish podiatrist by the name of Dr. Robert Goldstein, 38, who wanted to send a message on behalf of "his people" following the attacks of Sept. 11, and to express his anger over the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict, was arrested after police raided his home. There they discovered a detailed plan to blow up 50 local mosques and Islamic centers, "kill all 'rags'" and "liquidate" Muslims during the attacks if necessary. Police also uncovered a vast illegal stash of weapons, including 30 explosive devices, light-armor rockets, hand grenades, a 5-gallon gasoline bomb, .50-caliber machine guns, silencers, and sniper rifles.

Ultimately, law enforcement authorities would label one man a terrorist, and the other a dangerous but deluded perpetrator of hate crimes. How do two crimes with similarities that seem highly relevant in the midst of a war on terrorism come to be defined so differently? Some observers cite paranoia in the wake of Sept. 11 as the reason. Others don't. But even some law enforcement officials are stymied by the choices made by their colleagues in the two cases.

Prosecutors working independently in the Hadayet and Goldstein cases concluded, after extensive criminal investigations, that both men were essentially unstable lone wolves without ties to any larger political or extremist organizations. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Florida, after consulting with Department of Justice attorneys, reached a plea agreement in the Goldstein case that reflected, apparently, this conclusion: He was convicted of weapons charges, attempting to damage religious property, and violating civil rights. His crime was not defined as a terrorist act.

But last week, after initially angering critics by downplaying the possibility of terrorism in the Hadayet case, the FBI confirmed that it had categorized the LAX shooting as a terrorist act. The final determination, according to Laura Bosley, spokeswoman for the FBI's Los Angeles office, was made in Washington by FBI Director Bill Mueller and Attorney General John Ashcroft.

The handling of the two cases, and above all their conclusions, raised the concerns of Muslim and Arab leaders who have suggested that, since Sept. 11, a double standard has emerged in cases that might be construed as acts of terror. They believe that defendants with a Middle Eastern background are far more likely to be labeled terrorists.

"There's a political will to charge terrorism on certain cases and not on others," says Khurrum Wahid, a criminal defense attorney and legal advisor to CAIR, the nation's largest Arab-American advocacy group. "And it's being used against anyone that's consistent with who we're going after for the 9/11 attacks."

The obvious difference between the two cases is that Goldstein was apprehended before he killed anyone, and Hadayet was not. From a prosecutorial perspective, there was another key difference: Hadayet acted alone, while Goldstein conspired with two others -- his wife, Kristi Goldstein, and his friend, Michael Hardee -- in creating plans to carry out attacks on Muslims mosques, attacks that reportedly were to include placing napalm under a dirt road near the targeted building in order to keep policemen at bay following the attacks. Both Kristi Goldstein and Hardee pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for their cooperation in prosecuting Robert Goldstein.

"If Goldstein had a different background, that group would have been categorized as a terrorist cell," says Wahid. "They were working in collusion, targeting a specific group, and hoping to express political views with an action of planned violence. If they'd been Muslim you'd be hard-pressed to suggest that they wouldn't have been treated as a terrorism case." Instead, complains Wahid, the police treated it as a mental health issue since Goldstein had a history of depression.

"We felt that, based on evidence, we filed the proper charges," says Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. District Attorney's office in Tampa. He notes that Goldstein could be sentenced to 15 years in federal prison. "That's not a slap on the wrist. It's a significant amount of time." (In an unusual move, if the judge decides to sentence Goldstein to more than 15 years, the defendant will be allowed to withdraw his plea.)

The different outcomes of the Goldstein and Hadayet cases, whatever the motivation of their prosecutors, illustrate a certain vagueness in America's war on terrorism: There really is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a terrorist act. Whatever the working definition is today though, experts agree it's becoming increasingly broad.

Traditionally, intelligence and law enforcement agents used four criteria in determining terrorist acts: A suspected terrorist act was premeditated; it was political, in that it was designed to change the existing political order; it was aimed at civilians; and it was carried out by subnational groups -- not by the army of a country.

More recently, the notion that terrorism has to be carried out by specific terrorist groups has been de-emphasized by law enforcement. After the Sept. 11 attack President Bush signed an order aimed at curtailing fundraising for terrorist organizations. In it, terrorism was defined as "an activity that involves a violent act or an act dangerous to human life, property, or infrastructure; and appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping, or hostage-taking." The element of conspiracy, the idea of agents working on behalf of larger organizations, was noticeably absent.

The Goldstein and Hadayet cases also highlight the overlap in crimes determined to be terrorism and those classified as hate crimes. "Terrorism is an act designed to spread fear to a large group of people, where with a hate crime that's not necessarily true," says Mark Potok, director of publications and information for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes. "My concern is if 'terrorism' is overused. It deserves to be treated seriously and not demeaned to mean a crime that many people don't like."

Vince Cannistraro, the CIA's former counter-terrorism chief, thinks prosecutors in Tampa made the right call by essentially charging Goldstein with hate crimes. "Traditionally, acts of terrorism try to change the political dynamic, to influence a political response." He says that was not the case in Tampa. "[Goldstein] had anger directed at a class of people -- Arabs and Muslims -- and he wanted to kill them. That's a hate crime, or violating someone's civil rights."

Using the same guidelines, he suggests the FBI went too far in labeling Hadayet's LAX shooting as terrorism. "In practical terms, he's a murderer and he's dead. But killing Jews at the El Al counter is not trying to change the political dynamic. It's an act based on hatred and emotion. It's the act of revenge."

FBI spokeswoman Bosley disagrees. "He was not acting on the behalf of any terrorist organization, but it was an act of terrorism," she says. "He endangered human life and appeared to be intending to intimidate a civilian population through a violent act."

The final categorization of the LAX attack was certainly the topic of much debate. In the days following the shooting, the FBI indicated that the shooting could have been a hate crime or a random act of violence. That approach generated criticism from the Israeli government, conservative commentators, the Anti-Defamation Leagues, and some members of Congress, most notably Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who wrote the FBI urging it to open a terrorism investigation, which it did.

As the Jewish Week reported last year, "The FBI, under pressure from the Jewish community, is now investigating [the El Al attack] as a terrorist incident."

But criticism escalated last September when the Los Angeles Times reported, "Federal investigators have all but concluded that Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was motivated more by personal woes than by political anger when he shot and killed two people at the El Al Airlines ticket counter."

Soon the debate shifted to Washington. While there was consultation about how to classify the attack, in the end it was "D.C.'s call" to define the shooting as terrorism, says Bosley at the FBI in Los Angeles. "They made the final decision."

Adds Cannistraro, "The government seemed to be giving in to political pressure. It's unfortunate, but everything connected to terrorism is politicized these days."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------