Why the Charleston Shooter Should Be Called a Terrorist

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Nine Dead After Church Shooting In Charleston
Dylann Storm Roof is seen in his booking photo after he was apprehended as the main suspect in the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo: Handout/2015 Charleston County Sheriff's Office

Charleston police chief Greg Mullen declared that the shooting of nine African-Americans in Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday was a “hate crime” even before we learned anything about what may have motivated the attack. As it became increasingly clear on Thursday that alleged shooter Dylann Roof is a white supremacist who wanted to terrorize the black community, many asked why journalists and law enforcement were sticking with the milder term rather than calling the shooting an act of domestic terrorism.

Jon Stewart crystallized the disgust and frustration surrounding the attack in a monologue that took up the entire first segment of Thursday’s Daily Show. (The host said he had “nothing” in terms of jokes, and the rest of the show was devoted to an interview with Malala Yousafzai.) Stewart said that while the attack exposes the “gaping racial wound that will not heal, but we pretend doesn’t exist,” he’s convinced that “we still won’t do jack sh*t” — though America will do whatever it takes to fight the so-called War on Terror. “They’re already using the nuanced language of lack of effort for this,” he said, alluding to the media. “This is a terrorist attack. This is a violent attack on the Emmanuel Church in South Carolina, which is a symbol for the black community.”

On the journalism site Poynter, Al Tompkins argued that the media “should remain factual and focused on truth-telling, not guessing” in times like these.

The shooter was quoted as saying “‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

When I heard the quote I quickly defaulted to my understanding that the shooting was a white supremacist. A moment of reflection later I began wondering:

  • Is the quote accurate?
  • Who was the shooter referring to?  Church members? Christians? Or black people?
  • Why would he kill women and say, “You rape our women?”

Is this shooting in Charleston, South Carolina an act of terrorism? We don’t know yet.  My advice to Matt [Jaworowski, a digital content producer] was to stick to the facts, publish as much information as possible to catch the killer, then we can begin to understand why he did what he did.

While it’s true that many of the facts in the case have yet to be verified, the media does not tend to show that much restraint in labeling crimes. Brian J. Phillips, an expert on terrorism, wrote in the Washington Post:

… it is important to use the term “terrorism” when we see it in order to be consistent. Terrorism is already used without hesitation for many non-white – especially Muslim – actors who carry out violence consistent with the definition outlined above. Few media sources use the term for violent actors motivated by, for example, white supremacy or anti-government rage. To avoid the term becoming simply an insult, or worse a racist insult, it should be used whenever the basic criteria apply, or not at all.

CNN’s Chris Cuomo made this argument when asked why he was one of the few journalists using the term on Thursday morning:

As Dean Obeidallah explained in the Daily Beast, the church shooting fits the federal definition of “domestic terrorism”:

The controlling federal statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 2331, provides that “domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
2. Appear intended (a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(c) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

Elements one and three of this statute are clearly fulfilled. Roof committed an act dangerous to human life (nine murders) and it took place in the United States. The only question is whether this attack was intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination…”

Obeidallah says that if what we know about the attack so far is true, element two fits as well:

Roof’s comment that blacks were “taking over the country“ and “have to go” makes it clear that his murderous rampage was at the very least intended to intimidate the African American community in that area. He wanted to terrorize them so they would not even feel safe in their own place of worship.

Roof also assassinated an elected official, South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, the well-known pastor of the church. Was this assassination intended to impact the conduct of government? Again Roof’s comment that blacks are taking over our country would arguably indicate that he wanted to remove black elected officials from office, which would certainly influence government policies.

Given these facts, as a former trial lawyer, I can say it appears that Roof’s conduct warrants charging him with domestic terrorism under this federal statute.

Many on Twitter said the media were hesitant to use the term terrorism because the terror wasn’t aimed at white people:

Jeneé Osterheldt wrote in the Kansas City Star:

I guess people shy away from calling acts like this terrorism because that would mean white supremacy in itself is a terrorist act. And we live in a country that operates on systemic racism.

Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the New York Times that we have been “conditioned” to think of violence committed by Muslims as terrorism, but “If the same violence is committed by a white supremacist or apartheid sympathizer and is not a Muslim, we start to look for excuses — he might be insane, maybe he was pushed too hard.” David Sterman and Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, agreed that’s how the American public sees terrorism, though that’s false:

But do the thought experiment: If this attack on the church in Charleston had been conducted by a Muslim man shouting “Allahu akbar,” what is already a big news story would have become even bigger, as it would appear to fit so well into the political and media narrative that Muslim militants are the major terrorist problem in the United States.

That’s a false narrative, as it turns out. In fact, deadly acts of terrorism by virulent racists and anti-government extremists have been more common in the United States than deadly acts of jihadist terrorism since 9/11 

According to a count by New America, since 9/11, 26 people have been killed in jihadist terrorist attacks in the United States, while extremist right-wing racists and anti-government militants have killed 48, if we include the nine people who were killed in the attack in Charleston, which is being investigated as a hate crime.

In Foreign Policy, Elias Groll wrote that, post-9/11, Americans have developed a strange and ahistorical view of terrorism:

But in the aftermath of 9/11, the subsequent war on terror, and two protracted ground wars carried out in the name of fighting terrorism, what exactly constitutes an act of terrorism has become a deeply contested notion in the United States, one that has become inflected by the country’s racial prejudices and the perceived connection between Islam and terrorism

Terrorism in the United States and around the world, however, has a much longer history than the period after 9/11 and hasn’t been limited to radical Islamists. Consider the IRA, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Carlos the Jackal, the Red Brigades, the KKK, and Timothy McVeigh. The use of violence as a political tool against civilian targets is a tool that adheres neither to religion nor race.

Roxanne Jones, founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice-president at ESPN, said in a CNN opinion piece that it’s time to stop making excuses for violence committed against black people and give the problem as much attention as foreign terrorism:

It has always been ironic to me that America has been diligent in fighting the war against terror around the globe, losing thousands of lives in the effort and spending billions, if not trillions, of dollars over the years to hunt down foreign terrorists whom we felt were a threat to our nation or our allies. Well, America, it is past time to fight a war on racial terror within our own shores.

We have allowed it to fester for far too long, and it is ripping our nation apart.

Writing in the Washington Post, Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, concluded that we need to view the Charleston shooting in context, the same way we would examine what radicalized an Islamic terrorist:

This time, I hope that reporters and newscasters will ask the questions that get to the root of acts of  racially motivated violence in America. Where did this man, who killed parishioners in their church during Bible study, learn to hate black people so much? Did he have an allegiance to the Confederate flag that continues to fly over the state house of South Carolina? Was he influenced by right-wing media’s endless portrayals of black Americans as lazy and violent?

I hope the media coverage won’t fall back on the typical narrative ascribed to white male shooters: a lone, disturbed or mentally ill young man failed by society. This is not an act of just “one hateful person.” It is a manifestation of the racial hatred and white supremacy that continues to pervade our society, 50 years after the Birmingham church bombing galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. It should be covered as such. And now that authorities have found their suspect, we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.