Here’s what would happen if a white nationalist extremist were Muslim

Whatever Hasson is charged with, it won’t be as severe as the charges he would face if he were a Muslim.
Sunday 10/03/2019
FBI Special Agent Gordon Johnson (C) speaks while flanked by US Attorney Robert Hur (R) and Art Walker (L) of the Coast Guard Investigative Service at the United States District Court Greenbelt Division, February 21. (AFP)
Biased system? FBI Special Agent Gordon Johnson (C) speaks while flanked by US Attorney Robert Hur (R) and Art Walker (L) of the Coast Guard Investigative Service at the United States District Court Greenbelt Division, February 21. (AFP)

In late February, US federal authorities arrested US Coast Guard Lieutenant Christopher Paul Hasson. They alleged Hasson, 49, plotted to kill leaders of the Democratic Party and well-known journalists.

Basically, Hasson’s targets were said to be anyone who had spoken against or written articles about US President Donald Trump. Authorities reportedly seized a huge cache of weapons from Hasson’s Maryland home.

Hasson, a self-avowed white-supremacist, allegedly dreamt of “killing every person on the face of the Earth.” He is being held on gun and drug-related charges. Federal authorities described him as a “domestic terrorist.”

While we don’t know how US federal authorities will deal with Hasson or how his case will be reported on by the American media, a report says we can at least be sure of some things: Whatever Hasson is charged with, it won’t be as severe as the charges he would face if he were a Muslim and the American media will not report on Hasson’s crimes as thoroughly as they might for a Muslim charged with the same offences.

These are the findings of a report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) titled “Equal Treatment?: Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States.” It says there are significant differences in the way the identity of an alleged perpetrator of ideologically motivated violence affects the legal response to his actions and the way they are reported in American media.

The report gathered data that covered the past few American administrations, including those of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Trump. The authors looked at the reporting of two of the United States’ best-known media outlets, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

It made some significant points.

On average prosecutors sought a sentence for Muslim perpetrators that was three times as long as they did for non-Muslim perpetrators of similar plots of ideologically motivated violence (230 months versus 76 months). The average sentence for Muslim perpetrators was four times as long as that for non-Muslims (211 months versus 53 months).

In plots involving a Muslim perpetrator, undercover law enforcement or an informant provided the means to commit the crime in two-thirds of convictions while law enforcement provided the means of the crime in one-sixth of cases involving a non-Muslim perpetrator.

Any perpetrator of violent acts who was perceived to be Muslim received twice the media attention as a non-Muslim. In terms of “foiled plots,” such as the one above involving Hasson, Muslim alleged perpetrators received 770% more media coverage than non-Muslims, the report stated.

The media were also far more likely to refer to the perpetrator’s religion when they were Muslim and more likely to use the word “terrorism” or “terrorist.”

Carey Shenkman, co-principal investigator and co-author of the report and an ISPU fellow, said the study points to something significant. “I think especially with policy there’s a tendency for a lot of handwaving much of the time and to have a lot of claims that may not be backed up by the facts and so we really wanted to have something that was numbers-based, that was objective, in a field that often has a lot of subjectivity,” he said.

Shenkman said what surprised him the most was how often law enforcement used entrapment with Muslim perpetrators but not with non-Muslim perpetrators such as white supremacists.

“We found that the majority of the violent plots that were attributed to the Muslim-perceived threat were actually undercover stings,” Shenkman said, “and that was kind of troubling for us because, from a legal perspective, you’d expect the harshest punishments to go to the folks that were finding their own weapons and taking those steps such as far-right extremists and white supremacists, you know all these groups. They were actually ready without the need of law enforcement to provide them weapons.”

Another surprise was how one-sided the reporting was in the supposedly liberal Washington Post and New York Times. This is not the first time, however, that the New York Times has been accused of biased coverage of Muslims. A British think-tank, 416 Labs, released a report in 2015 that alleged a significant bias against Muslims and Islam in the New York Times, which could influence readers to think all Muslims were responsible for the actions of a few.

Professor Hussein Rashid, who teaches at Barnard College in New York and focuses on Muslims and American popular culture, said he’s not surprised by the media’s one-sided coverage. The perspective of some papers tends to be white and Christian, he said.

“That’s why we don’t get a lot of coverage on white-collar crimes, which is why we don’t get a lot of coverage on white nationalist terror because, much as they would like to condemn white nationalist terror in theory, those are their people.”

Rashid added: “They sympathise, they can make excuses for their people in ways they can’t for other people. They understand that white nationalist terrorists might be an aberration because [they are] not like me but he’s enough like me that I can forgive him. Somebody who’s not can’t be forgiven because they’re too different. They have to be strange and exotic and foreign.”

Rashid said diversifying newsrooms would be welcome, not just in terms of race but religious background as well.

“I think it’s a step,” said Rashid. “It’s also about recognising the biases. Diversity is actually not equity, and it’s really about creating equitable newsrooms, where all voices at a particular level are truly considered equal.”