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    Renée Graham

    Why are we so slow to call hate crimes for what they are?

    Family members cried during last week’s vigil for Nabra Hassanen in Reston, Va.
    ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images
    Family members cried during last week’s vigil for Nabra Hassanen in Reston, Va.

    WHY HAVE POLICE so quickly dismissed the possibility that Nabra Hassanen’s murder was a hate crime?

    For their own inscrutable reasons, Virginia law enforcement officials claim that road rage, not hate, was the motive in the Muslim teen’s killing. Last Sunday morning, Hassanen and a group of friends were returning to a mosque when they got into a verbal dispute with a motorist, a man whom police identify as Darwin Martinez Torres.

    Chasing the teens, the motorist drove his car onto the curb, authorities say; when Hassanen tripped, the man reportedly knocked her unconscious with a metal baseball bat and dragged her into his car.

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    She was later found dead in a pond. Police say she suffered blunt-force trauma to her upper body, and there have been reports that she may have been sexually assaulted.

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    Yet authorities quickly ruled out hate crime charges against Torres. “It appears that the suspect became so enraged over this traffic argument that it escalated into deadly violence,” Julie Parker, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Police Department, said at a news conference.

    That just doesn’t sound right. The level of violence seems disproportionate to an act of road rage. Fury might have prompted the suspect to pursue the teens — some of whom fled on foot, others on bikes — but everything that occured after Hassanen fell hints at a level of pathology beyond just an angry driver.

    At a time when bias-based attacks are on the rise, authorities seem increasingly reluctatnt to use the term “hate crime.” Perhaps they find the words too incendiary, as if uttering the phrase were as damaging as the crime itself. Most hate crimes target people of color, Muslims and Jews, and members of the LGBT community, and officials might prefer to treat such acts as isolated incidents rather than as the product of deeper prejudices. A hate-crime designation has to pass a gauntlet of qualifications — unlike terrorism, a similarly provocative term that, all too often, is hastily deployed based on the religion of the perpetrator rather than on the facts of the crime.

    Calling Hassanen’s death a hate crime won’t change its pointlessness or brutality, but doing so would give it a specificity that defining it as an act of road rage lacks. The very term “hate crime” brands a malicious act for what it is and whom it targets, spurring greater vigilance and awareness. Under certain federal and state laws, hate crime convictions can also lead to increased jail time.

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    For persecuted groups, such charges publicly validate what they’ve experienced all along.

    As it happens, Islamophobia isn’t the only form of hate that might have motivated Hassanen’s killer. She may also have been murdered because she was female — reports of possible sexual violence may point in that direction — and that would also constitute a hate crime.

    As defined by law, hate crimes are motivated by bias based on the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In 2009, the passage of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act added actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender to that list.

    Still, even though gender is covered, crimes that target women, such as sexual or domestic violence, are never defined as hate crimes — even though women are regularly singled out as victims because of their gender.

    Clearly, some have no issue with how hate crime laws are applied when it pertains to law enforcement officers. Louisiana’s “Blue Lives Matter” law gives police officers, firefighters, and EMS personnel protected status under that state’s hate crime law. One Louisiana police chief even asserted that anyone resisting arrest should be charged with a hate crime, which could bump a misdemeanor up to a felony.

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    Yet being a police officer, who can change professions or take off his uniform, isn’t the same as being a Muslim, African-American or a woman — groups who have been historically targeted for who they are, not what they do. That’s why in the streets, in the home, or anywhere else, a crime motivated by hate should always be called out for exactly what it is.

    Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.