New Yorkers Christopher Brown, 21, and Matthew Mahrer, 22, were reportedly carrying a Glock 17, 30 rounds of ammo, an 8-inch knife, and a swastika armband when they were arrested over the weekend in Penn Station. Police and prosecutors allege that the pair had prepared an attack on a New York City synagogue. A Twitter account linked to Mahrer and Brown had previously tweeted, “Gonna ask a priest if I should become a husband or shoot up a synagogue and die.”
The incident throws into stark relief the city’s continuing problem with anti-Semitic crime. Crimes against Jews in New York spiked in 2019, dipped briefly during the pandemic, and then rose again in 2021-2022. The NYPD reported 208 anti-Semitic hate crimes through September of this year—9 percent more than in all of 2018, and 41 percent more than all of 2017.
This wave, and a nationwide increase in reported hate incidents more generally, is often understood as an ideological problem. Dangerous ideas are circulating on the left and right, the theory goes, and until we suppress them, “stochastic terrorism” will continue unabated. But what this weekend’s takedowns show is that stopping such crimes doesn’t require changing hearts and minds. It needs smart, old-fashioned detective work, backed up with unwavering support by civilian leadership.
Picking up Brown and Mahrer was the work of several agencies, including the FBI/NYPD Joint Terrorism Task Force and the NYPD Counterterrorism and Intelligence Bureau. They were tracked through social media postings—an increasingly important part of counter-extremism work—and then through New York City to Penn Station using dogged leg work. Community Security Initiative director Mitchell Silber called the pursuit of the two a “manhunt,” adding, “I don’t think we’ve had a situation like this in New York in some time and it definitely stressed the system a bit but it was a good outcome.”
We often think about such crimes as different from others because they are motivated by bias. This is true as regards their social significance, and as regards their eligibility for enhanced criminal charges. But thinking too much about difference in motivations risks running afoul of the fallacy of root causes—focusing on what causes crime, rather than on what the most effective means to address it are.
The most effective means, as I argued in a Manhattan Institute report earlier this year, is policing. Most hate crimes, including this week’s foiled terror plot, resemble all other crimes in that they leave evidence in the same way and are committed by similar people. Data released by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, for example, show that of hate-crime offenders arrested in New York City between 2019 and the end of 2021, half had some prior conviction, including 15 percent with a prior violent felony conviction. The law-enforcement techniques that provably reduce crime are—as this weekend’s operation shows—likely the most effective way to combat hate crime, too.
It is thus heartening that Governor Kathy Hochul, who just won a narrow gubernatorial race focused on crime, responded to the anti-Semitic plot, as well as a shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, by increasing New York State police focus on the issue. It’s a far better approach than handing out grants to civilians to “incentivize creative and innovative solutions to combat hate crimes,” as the New York City Mayor’s Office for the Prevention of Hate Crime did last year. As The City recently reported, no one will say where the $1 million OPHC earmarked for that project went.
Crimes driven by hatred of particular groups are a real and pressing problem. But if we want to solve them, don’t waste time thinking about how to change offenders’ hearts and minds. Just enforce the law, swiftly and efficiently.
Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images