Equal Treatment?

Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States

Hate crime or terrorism? Lone wolf or extremist? These words are often used to describe ideologically motivated violence in the U.S., and their use by officers of the law and members of the media has impact on real cases.

Equal Treatment?: Measuring the Legal and Media Responses to Ideologically Motivated Violence in the United States examines cases in which perpetrators of similar crimes receive dramatically different legal and media responses. This empirical analysis compares media coverage, law enforcement tactics, charges, and eventual sentencing when the perpetrator of an act of ideologically motivated violence is perceived to be Muslim and acting in the name of Islam vs. not perceived to be Muslim and motivated by another ideology, such as white supremacy.

A graphic of a man split in half: on the left, he has brown skin and a red background; on the right, he has white skin and a blue background

In this apples-to-apples study, ISPU’s research reveals perceived Muslim perpetrators of violence are subject to more severe legal charges, up to three times the prison sentence, and more than seven times the media coverage compared to non-Muslim perpetrators. Perpetrators perceived as Muslim are also much more likely to be targeted for undercover law enforcement operations providing them with weapons or fake explosives.

Executive Summary & Key Findings

Dive into the Data

Infographics

Download all three infographics here.

What We Did

Equal Treatment? examines two categories of perpetrators in both the media and legal analyses:

  • CATEGORY A: Individuals committing or plotting violent acts who are perceived to be Muslim, allegedly acting in the name of Islam.
  • CATEGORY B: Individuals committing or plotting violent ideologically motivated acts who are not perceived to be Muslim and motivated by another ideology.

Cases examined in both analyses were divided into three categories:

  • PRIMARY INCIDENTS: Causing two or more fatalities (one fatality was excluded, as it typically means the death of the perpetrator only)
  • HIGH-INTENSITY INCIDENTS: Causing at least seven fatalities or at least 50 injuries. This category is the upper extremity of combined fatalities and injuries in the set analyzed, and is grouped to allow better comparison
  • VIOLENT PLOTS: Where the planned offense is not executed, but where there is sufficient evidence to bring prosecution

Incident Selection

IMV incidents associated with perpetrators of both categories were selected from existing, published datasets of ideologically motivated violence. Based on a combination of these existing datasets, United States-based IMV incidents from 2002 to 2015 resulting in two or more fatalities were included. We also included a set of violent ideological plots that were prevented or foiled prior to completion, either by law enforcement investigation or through a “sting” operation. The violent plots included bomb plots and firearms plots. As used in this report “violent plot” and “plot” are interchangeable. The goal of selecting this set of incidents was not to create a new or comprehensive database of IMV acts. Instead, the purpose was to facilitate as best as possible an “apples to apples” study, i.e., to compare Category A and Category B perpetrators whose conduct and impact were similar in severity and quality. Incident selection was done prior to any analysis and was not changed after analysis began.

Are We Comparing Apples to Apples?

Some may suggest that differences in nature and scale of offenses may make it difficult to analyze or draw inferences from the legal and media treatment of the two categories of perpetrators. While we cannot rule out that such differences might partly explain some differences in outcome, we have taken a number of steps to ensure as close to an “apples to apples” comparison as possible.

Here are the factors that have been recorded and accounted for in analyzing incidents:

A coffin in a black, circular icon

Fatalities: An incident resulting a greater number of fatalities is generally more severe than one with fewer.

A handgun in a black, circular icon

Weapon used: The weapon used in a violent incident or planned for use in a violent plot indicates the intended scale of the violent act.

A blast radius in a black, circular icon

Intended outcome: This measures the level of harm the perpetrator aimed to cause, as alleged by law enforcement.

A gun target in a black, circular icon

Target of incident: The type of target is recorded in incidents, such as whether it is a religious community, a racial or ethnic group, an LGBT individual or group, or the government.

Two people in a black, circular icon

Existence of co-perpetrators: Where applicable, any accused co-perpetrators or co-conspirators are recorded.

Equal Treatment? in the News

Equal Treatment? in the News

Meet the Research Team

Dalia Mogahed

Dalia Mogahed

Director of Research, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Kumar Rao

Kumar Rao

Co-Principal Investigator & Co-Author

ISPU Fellow, JD, New York University School of Law

Carey Shenkman

Carey Shenkman

Co-Principal Investigator & Co-Author

ISPU Fellow, JD, New York University School of Law

Khwaja Ahmed

Khwaja Ahmed

Research Assistant

Hasher Nisar

Hasher Nisar

Research Assistant

Sarrah Buageila

Sarrah Buageila

Project Manager, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

Senior Communications Manager, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Katie Grimes

Katie Grimes

Communication & Creative Media Specialist, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Meet the Study Advisors

A full accounting of this report’s advisors coming soon.

Meet the Research Team

Dalia Mogahed

Dalia Mogahed

Director of Research, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Kumar Rao

Kumar Rao

Co-Principal Investigator & Co-Author

ISPU Fellow, JD, New York University School of Law

Carey Shenkman

Carey Shenkman

Co-Principal Investigator & Co-Author

ISPU Fellow, JD, New York University School of Law

Khwaja Ahmed

Khwaja Ahmed

Research Assistant

Hasher Nisar

Hasher Nisar

Research Assistant

Sarrah Buageila

Sarrah Buageila

Project Manager, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Katherine Coplen

Katherine Coplen

Senior Communications Manager, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Katie Grimes

Katie Grimes

Communication & Creative Media Specialist, Institute for Social Policy and Understanding

Meet the Study Advisors

A full accounting of this report’s advisors coming soon.