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Cuomo proposes domestic terror act, asks Congress to do the same

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposes his Hate Crimes

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposes his Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act on Thursday in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday proposed a domestic terrorism bill that will create more tools for law enforcement and create terrorism-level penalties to combat “the toxic cocktail of guns and hate.”

His state Hate Crimes Domestic Terrorism Act will “define hate-fueled murder with the intent to cause mass casualties as an act of domestic terrorism” with penalties of up to life without parole.

Currently, a hate crime is punishable by up to 20 years to life with the possibility of parole.

The act would cover mass casualty violence resulting in the murder of at least one person and the attempted murder of at least two more “when that violence is motivated by hate.” This differs slightly from FBI definition of terrorism as including three or more deaths.

The bill also would create a task force to study mass shootings to recommend ways to prevent the tragedies and develop more police strategies for attacks.

As examples of “repulsive, immoral, anti-American” domestic terrorists, the governor cited white supremacists, anti-Semites, those opposed to gay and transgender people and white nationalists.

“We are living a recurring American nightmare … the scourge of hate,” Cuomo told the New York City Bar Association in Manhattan. "When we look back at this era we will see that this has been one of the most polarizing and divisive in our history, a society indelibly scarred by the toxic cocktail of guns and hate." 

Cuomo bound together national mass shootings by Americans with the need to combat hate speech up to and including President Donald Trump. He also called on Congress to pass a similar measure as well as a federal SAFE Act. That would be a federal version of Cuomo's 6-year-old signature state gun control law and includes a ban on assault weapons, high-capacity clips of ammunition and more thorough background checks before sales of firearms.

In praising diversity as a basic American virtue, Cuomo cited President Abraham Lincoln’s warning that a house divided can’t endure.

“The flames of hatred have been stoked to a raging fire that threatens to burn down the American house that Lincoln envisioned,” Cuomo said.

State officials say the domestic terror bill is still being written and experts are being consulted. It will include new tools to investigate individuals and groups, including internet postings. 

Other local and state governments nationwide are increasing their focus on domestic terrorism as data shows these attacks are growing more prevalent, said Erin M. Kearns, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alabama.

“Gov. Cuomo’s focus on terrorism within the U.S. is a positive thing,” Kearns said. “His proposed definition, however, is too narrow. Some terrorism is not ‘hate-inspired’ and most terrorist attacks do not have any fatalities. By requiring these two elements, attacks with other political, religious, social, or economic goals and attacks that do not involve at least four fatalities will be excluded.”

Another expert in the field, Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, said defining domestic terrorism will be difficult and Cuomo’s proposal could raise more problems.

Abrahms said many terrorists don’t have carnage as a goal, so they would apparently be left out of a definition that Cuomo favors. For example, Abrahms said environmental and animal rights groups don’t make casualties a goal, but focus on getting their political message out by sabotage, such as the radical Weather Underground in the 1960s and 1970s.

Further, “it can be very hard to know what motivates a perpetrator,” he said, noting that short of a discovering a manifesto or alliance to an established terror group, determining the motivation of a terrorist versus an angry or deranged mass shooter is the toughest of three keys to defining terrorism.

Abrahms said the other two keys are that the perpetrator isn’t acting for a government or state and that the attack is on a civilian target.

Under Cuomo’s criteria, “a very large number of terrorism attacks would be removed,” he said. Abrahms also said Cuomo’s requirement that the violence be motivated by hate is “slippery” and would be hard to nail down in effective legislation.

Cuomo made it clear the act will be a major initiative for his third term and a prod he will use against Democratic candidates for president.

“A country is not just what it does,” Cuomo said. "It is also what it tolerates. We must have no tolerance for this rampage of hatred and violence”

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