Despite near-daily reports of attacks against people who appear Middle Eastern, the difficulty in determining what motivated the criminals and the nation's imprecise system for tracking hate crimes make it impossible to know how dramatically such violence has surged.
Since Sept. 11, the FBI has opened investigations into 145 reported hate crimes, the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Southern California has reported 800 cases nationwide, and the LAPD reported 32 in Los Angeles alone.
But the FBI, for example, opens an investigation when agents receive reports of suspected hate crimes. It does not mean that the FBI has determined that all are hate crimes or that all are being actively investigated. Locally, the situation is equally murky.
Whatever the number, there is no doubt that many people have been victimized over these anxious weeks and that many have suffered because of their ethnicity or their appearance. But determining whether these cases are motivated by hate is difficult because it requires exploring a gray area of criminal justice: intent.
Did the killer of an Egyptian grocer in San Gabriel, Calif., have an ethnic bias against Egyptians, or was the killing an interrupted armed robbery that turned into a murder? Was a Muslim woman nearly driven off a road in Florida because of her ethnicity, or was it a case of road rage? Were the windows of a service station in Michigan shot out because its owners are Arab Americans or because it was a good target for a shooting spree?
Judging intent is difficult
Beyond proving what was in the mind of the criminal, the definition of a hate crime varies from state to state. Some local law enforcement agencies collect the data, others don't. And many of the crimes go unreported by victims afraid to share the facts with police.
In addition, some skeptics suggest that advocacy groups inflate hate crime statistics to drum up support for their causes.
Meanwhile, the tracking systems for cases that are filed are similarly flawed.
Law enforcement agencies are not required to report hate crimes to the federal government. Yet the FBI issues an annual crime report listing hate crimes. So when the FBI announced in 1999, for example, that there were 7,876 bias-motivated crimes, that did not reflect all the law enforcement agencies in the country.
When California Attorney General Bill Lockyer announced Sept. 19 that his office is investigating 70 possible hate crimes, he meant that some major police departments in the state are looking at that many cases. When City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo announced that his office received 37 reports of hate crimes, his office in fact got the number from a Los Angeles Police Department spokesman who later said the department is unsure how many of those were truly hate-motivated.
"To be perfectly honest, as ugly as these things are, I don't know if law enforcement has an accurate and true picture of these crimes," said Special Agent Chris Davis, the hate crimes coordinator for the FBI's Los Angeles region.
Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, agreed.
"The truth is, hate crime statistics are so fouled up ... there's never going to be a way to define it," said Potok, whose organization is tracking reports of hate crimes since the terrorist attacks. "You simply cannot tell whether hate crimes are going up or down."
A research group affiliated with the Southern Poverty Law Center compiled a list of 134 reported hate incidents from around the country on the Web site www.tolerance.org. It lists two homicides, along with vandalism, verbal threats and some assaults -- all since Sept. 11, when terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania.
The passage of the first hate crime laws came partly in response to the 1986 murder of Michael Griffith, a 23-year-old black man who was beaten to death in the New York City neighborhood of Howard Beach. Griffith was killed while trying to escape a mob of white teen-agers wielding baseball bats and shouting racial epithets. Since then, hate crime has become an established -- if much debated -- branch of criminal law.
In California, a pioneering state in enacting hate crime laws, any illegal act motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability is considered a hate crime. Enacted in 1987, the laws generally tack on prison time to those convicted of other offenses in cases where prosecutors show that hate motivated the act. Thirteen states include crimes motivated by gender as hate offenses.
Hate crime really is seen as two crimes. There is the underlying offense, the assault or vandalism or threat. And there is the motivation of hatred of a particular type of person that draws an extra punishment.
Sometimes hatred is apparent