Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson was quick to denounce the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, not just as a tragedy but as a "hate crime."
When a reporter asked at an appearance in South Carolina why he used that term, which is defined by Congress as a crime motivated by particular types of prejudice against certain communities, Carson suggested that all mass shootings are hate crimes.
“It’s hard to imagine you’d shoot a bunch of people if you didn’t hate them. You don’t do that to people you love,” he said. Just four days earlier, the retired neurosurgeon also referred to the shooting deaths of three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado as a hate crime.
Conservatives have long attempted to strip the meaning from the term "hate crime" by using it to describe all acts of violent crime. As governor of Texas, George W. Bush refused to sign the state’s proposed James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, saying, in part, “all crimes are hate crimes.”
Carson's position on hate crimes, as they are formally defined, is hard to pin down. Earlier this year, he was praised for an op-ed he wrote in response to the white supremacist attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which he suggested that shooting was a hate crime.
"There are people who are claiming that they can lead this country who dare not call this tragedy an act of racism, a hate crime, for fear of offending a particular segment of the electorate,” he wrote.
In the same op-ed, however, Carson attempted to legitimize the concerns of people who disapprove of the term "hate crime" by writing, “I understand the sensitivities. To some, calling the events in Charleston, S.C., a hate crime reinforces a stigma, which they have fought hard to put behind them.”
By characterizing all mass shootings as hate crimes, Carson is refusing to distinguish between acts of racially motivated terror, like those carried out against the African-American congregation of Emanuel AME church, and all other acts of violence, effectively rendering the concept of a hate crime moot.