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How We Categorize Tragedies Like Orlando

The day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the elections podcast takes stock of how politicians are responding and the words members of the media are using. FiveThirtyEight’s lead news writer Carl Bialik talks about how we categorize these tragedies and how those categories — terrorist attack, mass shooting, hate crime — often overlap. Also, the crew discusses the idea, put forward by some commentators, that a terrorist attack could boost Donald Trump’s poll numbers.

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On a different note, we added a new live show to our California mini-tour: We’ll be in Los Angeles at the Crest Theater with our friends from “The West Wing Weekly” on Saturday, June 25. More information here.

Here’s a transcription of part of our conversation, lightly edited:

Jody Avirgan: Carl, this was classified almost immediately as a terrorist incident, a mass shooting and a hate crime, among other things. So let’s start with terrorist incident. Why was this so quickly called terrorism?

Carl Bialik: I think there are a few factors here. We knew that the suspect had called 9-1-1 and pledged allegiance to ISIS. And evidence emerged from his father and from some other people about his hatred, specifically hatred towards gay people. And using this act as a way to incite terror in the U.S., among the gay community, it seemed that the evidence was that he had a goal of inciting terror with this shooting.

Jody: And then it was called a hate crime pretty quickly. President Obama used the word “hate”; Hillary Clinton used the term as well. Why was that label applied?

Carl: The shooter targeted a nightclub where gay people were celebrating and he had expressed a hatred for gay people. With some terrorist incidents, the details of who the person is attacking are not important to that person. It’s more about killing or injuring some people to frighten others. But in this case, the suspect seemed to be targeting, very specifically, a group of people whom he had expressed hatred for.

Now, one thing to note about both of the categories you’ve asked about is that they have legal definitions as well, and sometimes we can get confused because those specific legal charges aren’t added to a case. In this [instance], the suspect is dead. There won’t be any case against him, so that won’t come into play.

Jody: What’s the right language you try to use around something like this, or any incident when so many people die from gun violence?

Carl: Unfortunately this one, by any definition, would fall into the mass shooting [category]. What ends up being contested ground is: Do there need to be four people who were killed, or just four people who were killed or injured? (I say “just,” but that’s still a horrific tragedy when it happens.) But there’s a difference between an incident that’s extremely rare and happens usually fewer than five times a year in the U.S. and an incident that happens almost every day in this country.

This is the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, by either definition of a mass shooting. But even that gets contested because there’s a history of massacres of Native Americans and blacks in riots.

I think this falls into the category of the much rarer kinds of events we think of, like the Charleston church shooting or San Bernardino or the [Umpqua] Community College [in Oregon]. But to the people who define a mass shooting as an incident where at least four people are injured, that happens 300, 400 times a year.

Clare Malone: Carl, you wrote an article that went up this weekend about how more and more terrorist attacks are using guns. And I was just wondering when specifically we started to see this uptick.

Carl: Thankfully, in the U.S., these incidents are rare enough that it makes it a little hard to pinpoint. But it’s really been in the last few years that there have been deadly incidents like this using guns, claiming many lives in one attack. Now, what I was looking at specifically was among deaths caused by terrorists in the U.S. In about the last five years, deadly incidents of terrorism have increased and the number of people killed in them has started to increase. It’s also important to keep in mind that even after the horrific incident in Orlando, these numbers are still well below both the numbers of people who died from guns in the U.S. and the number of people in the world who die from terrorist incidents involving guns. There are countries where there are deaths from terrorists using guns almost every day. Whereas in the U.S. these are still pretty rare events.

Nate Silver: Yeah, and this is a case where you have to be a little bit careful of that statistic. It’s true that something like 85 percent — and it’ll go up as a result of Orlando — 85 percent of deaths caused by terrorism in the U.S. since 9/11 have been the result of guns. But there’s both a numerator and a denominator there, right? The numerator is the number of deaths caused by terrorists using guns, and that’s horrific and it’s going up, but the denominator is also the fact that there haven’t been very many terrorist incidents that don’t involve guns. That is partly a result of success — at least we think, maybe we’ve been lucky — in preventing terrorists from doing things like having access to explosives, from bombing things, from hijacking airplanes, from having access to chemicals, to weapons of mass destruction.

So it’s horrific, but if you talk to terrorism experts, the stakes are much higher when you have the potential to access planes as weapons, or when you have the potential access to weapons of mass destruction (obviously). So it’s kind of a new category for Americans. We had very few terrorist attacks, and the ones we had were what Al Qaeda used to call “spectacular”: killing hundreds or thousands of people at a time.

Carl: Getting a gun and preparing to use it, learning how to use it — these are things that more people can do. And more people who read about Islamic State or other groups and agree with their ideology, without having to connect with them or get any instructions from them, could carry out attacks. There are still a lot of vulnerable gatherings of people. So the lone wolf has that potential in a country where a lot of people can access dangerous firearms.

Jody: The data around hate crimes is notoriously spotty and under-reported, so I’m just wondering what we think we need in order to have a clear-headed conversation about moments like this.

Carl: A lot of [hate crimes] don’t get reported at all to police, and then police don’t always consider them hate crimes even if the victim does. And that can change over time. So what might look like an increase in hate crimes might just be a greater awareness of them. It could be a change in state law that encourages or discourages more people to report them, depending on whether the penalties and the enforcement gets stiffer or weaker. Whether these are on the rise or whether we’ve just grown more aware of them and created the language to describe them — it’s very hard to separate those things.

Jody: And just to add some context there: Only about 11 percent of law enforcement agencies nationwide reported a single hate crime in the last FBI report. The Department of Justice and FBI are trying to train agencies to be better at that. The Southern Poverty Law Center has written that LGBT people are far more likely than any other minority group to be victimized by violent a hate crime. They’re about 2 percent of the population and account for about 17 percent of violent hate crimes.

But again, these stats are really spotty and it’s hard to make progress on this if we don’t know how to quantify the problem.


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The FiveThirtyEight Elections podcast publishes Monday evenings, with occasional special episodes throughout the week. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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