This continues our series of student reflections and analysis authored by our research team.
All People are Equal, but Some People are More Equal than Others
“Equal justice under law” is engraved into the front of the United States Supreme Court building. It’s a paraphrase of the Supreme Court ruling in Caldwell v. Texas which states that everyone, regardless of classification, has the right to equal and impartial justice. Classification is something that the Prosecution Project codes for extensively. We record age, gender, ethnicity, veteran status, and more. But the most interesting variable of personal classification to me is if someone is “othered.” The evidence shows that when someone is “othered” they are not discussed equally by the government or society.
“Othered” status is important beyond simply creating a comprehensive database. Ultimately, the tPP aims to uncover links between how a case is prosecuted and how that process may be linked to factors such as “other” status. This is a question of increasing interest to the public recently given the socio-political violence that seems to happen on a regular basis now, whether that be ISIS affiliates attacking crowds or the alt-right shooting up mosques and synagogues. The way we talk about the perpetrators of this violence is different and worth examining. Dean Obeidallah discusses this in a Daily Beast op-ed on Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter.
Cruz etched his ammunition with swastikas and espoused white nationalist views before his attack. Despite this, Obeidallah notes that no one discussed possible white nationalist motivations for the attack and never referred to him as an extremist or terrorist. The current president, Trump, and ex-President Obama both described it as a mental health issue and a gun-law issue. and Instead, the media focused on Cruz’s mental health and described him as a troubled child. This displays a double standard, according to Obeidallah. He states that,
“does anyone actually believe if Cruz had etched the words “Allah Akbar” on his gun magazines we wouldn’t have heard about that for nearly two weeks after the attack? No way. I can assure you that information would’ve been made public, intentionally or by way of a leak. And then Donald Trump would almost certainly have pounced–without waiting for additional evidence–to label this an Islamic terror attack and try to use it to further his own political agenda. “
The reporting on Dylann Roof, who shot worshipers in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, presents us with the same story. Roof, by his own admission, wanted to start a race war in the United States. He killed nine people on the basis of their skin color to do so. Despite this, in the statement made by the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch, and another statement made by South Carolina prosecutors, the words terror or terrorism are never mentioned. Never is the word extremism mentioned. Instead, the story centers around Roof’s mental health and troubled past. It tells us how Roof had black friends, came from a good family, and helped his neighbors. It toes the line of apologist, constantly providing quotes like, “To me, in the seventh grade, he saw black just as he saw white, you know,” and “He doesn’t use the N-word. He says ‘African-American.”
Compare the stories of Dylann Roof and Nickolas Cruz with Omar Mateen, the Pulse nightclub shooter. The headline of a DOJ report, released just 8 days after the shooting occurred, says that the Pulse nightclub shooting was an act of terror and links Mateen to ISIS. Barrack Obama, president at the time of the shooting, declared it to be an act of terrorism only 4 days after the attack. The NYT article describing Mateen starts with a headline saying he was “Always Agitated. Always Mad.” The article states that Mateen “chuckled” as he killed almost 50 people, that those who knew him said he was a “leering misogynist” who’s “scattershot anger made others feel unsafe” and engaged in “much talk about violence & sex.”
By no means am I arguing that Mateen is a good or moral person. Mateen was a terrorist who caused incredible harm to our communities and should be described as the person he was — evil. However, when we look at his media and government biography compared to Roof and Cruz, we see that Roof and Cruz are described in far less demonizing terms and are afforded far more sympathy for their crimes. This is because Cruz and Roof were white, and Mateen was a Muslim of Afghani heritage. He was “other” and Roof and Cruz were not. An “othered” status clearly results in a very different discussion. The Prosecution Project’s work to record when individuals are othered and how they are prosecuted in comparison to those without that status is critical in the effort to realize how that different discussion impacts our justice system. It leads us to understand, as George Orwell did, that all people are equal, but some people are more equal than others.