Amid a national debate about racism, extremism and mass shootings, governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to make New York the first state to classify “hate-fuelled” killings as domestic terrorism on Thursday.
Describing the need to address the “new violent epidemic” of “hate-fuelled, American-on-American terrorism,” Mr Cuomo called for raising the penalties for violence motivated by race, gender, sexual orientation or other protected classes by making them punishable by up to life in prison without parole.
“Today, our people are three times more likely to suffer a terrorist attack launched by an American than one launched by a foreigner,” he said. “Now this is not just repulsive. This is not just immoral. This is not just anti-American. It is illegal.
"And we must confront it by enacting a new law to fit the crime.”
While the governor’s office has not shared any bill language, it said mass casualties would be defined as any death of at least one person and the attempted murder of at least two more.
Lawmakers have wrestled with how to define and prosecute domestic terrorism for years.
There is no federal crime of domestic terrorism. While congress passed a law after the 9/11 attacks defining domestic terrorism as violent acts intended to intimidate civilians or the government, that law did not create an accompanying federal offence, such as exists for international terrorism.
Acts of domestic terrorism have instead been prosecuted under different charges, such as attempting to “destroy a building in interstate commerce”.
Dozens of states, including New York, have enacted state-level laws defining terrorism. Some, including Georgia and Vermont, explicitly mention domestic terrorism.
But those laws, like the federal one, largely measure terrorism as an attempt to coerce or destabilise the public or the government.
New York’s new law, by contrast, would specify that domestic terrorism included acts of mass violence against people for their identities.
“White supremacists, anti-Semites, anti-LGBTQ, white nationalists: these are Americans committing mass hate crimes against other Americans,” Mr Cuomo said. “And it should be recognised for what it is: domestic terrorism.”
The governor also called on congress to enact a new federal domestic terrorism law. Senator Martha McSally introduced a bill on Wednesday to do that.
Brooklyn congressman Hakeem Jeffries, a Democrat who also spoke at the event at the New York City Bar Association, joined the call for federal action. “Rome is burning right now, and yet Donald Trump and his co-conspirators in the Republican Party are fiddling around,” he said.
Mr Cuomo’s proposal appears well positioned to win support in the state legislature, which this year fell under Democratic control for the first time in nearly a decade.
While leaders of both the state Senate and Assembly did not explicitly say that they would back the bill, in statements they said they shared Mr Cuomo’s goal of ensuring safety and condemning hate.
Mary McCord, a former top national security official in the justice department, said states’ existing domestic terrorism laws have not proved very effective, in part because they do little to address crime prevention.
“They kind of just sit there unused, because they don’t necessarily have the same experience in investigating and prosecuting terrorism cases” as federal authorities, she said. “I think all states should have domestic terrorism statutes, it’s a good thing for them to have, but it hasn’t really moved the ball significantly.”
Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank, said that murder typically already carries the maximum penalties, whatever the motivation.
“A mass murderer with a manifesto is still a mass murderer,” Jenkins said.
Supporters of Mr Cuomo’s proposal said that singling out political motivation was, in part, the point.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, appeared at Thursday’s speech alongside Mr Cuomo. He urged the audience to remember that “words are important”.
“If you don’t name it, you can’t fight it," he said.
The New York Times