The Charleston Church Shooting and the Meaning of Terrorism

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Dylann Storm Roof at his bond hearing in Charleston, South Carolina, June 19, 2015, in a still image from video. The White House has consistently refused to condemn right wing terrorism. Reuters

On Wednesday evening, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He sat in the Bible study for about an hour before opening fire. Nine African-American worshippers were killed.

Roof’s act, by his own admission, was racially motivated, and he reportedly confessed to the crimes on Friday morning. He said he had wanted to start a “race war.” According to a relative of a man shot inside the church, before opening fire Roof said, “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country.” In a photograph he posted on social media, Roof wore the flags of formerly white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia. His friends describe him as a person who made racist remarks. His roommate said Roof was “planning something like that for six months.”

Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder, a count of weapon possession.

An act of domestic terrorism, as defined by the FBI, must have three characteristics: “Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping; and Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” By this definition, Roof committed an act of terrorism: killing nine, intimidating the African-American community by attacking a historic black church in South Carolina. Yet, calling Roof a terrorist still invokes a squeamish feeling among some, including politicians.

“I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” presidential candidate Jeb Bush said. When asked if the shooting was racially motivated, Bush said he didn’t know. He called it an “act of raw hatred.” Indeed, the shooting has also been deemed a hate crime—but an act of violence can be both a hate crime and carried out by a terrorist.

For many, Roof does not evoke the cultural norm of a terrorist. “We often have things labeled as hate crimes but there’s a big leap from the label ‘hate crime’ to ‘terrorism,’” explains Ibrahim Hooper, the communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We always wait when these incidents are first reported to hear if it was carried out by a Muslim to find out if it will be labeled terrorism.”

Hooper listed numerous instances of violence carried out by white men against minority communities that were not deemed terrorist acts. In one occurrence, a man worked with a militia organization to plot an attack on a mosque. “When someone who isn’t Muslim carries out acts of terrorism, it comes down to, ‘Oh, he was mentally deranged. He was just a loner,” Hooper said. “I think any terrorist has some mental issue. That’s a given. You can have both mental issues and be labeled a terrorist as well.” 

Roof, like James Holmes and Timothy McVeigh before him, meet the mold of what has been oft-labeled a “madman”—a lonely, white male. Their acts are thrown into the category of “crazy,” not terrorism. One reason for this, experts explain, is because they do not have an allegiance to a set organization, even if they sympathize with the views of a hate or terrorist group.

“They were essentially a lone-wolf killer. It's always a struggle for some people to believe that if a killer is not associated with a group or a movement that they could be something other than mentally ill,” Mark Pitcavage, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told Newsweek. “We see that going back to Lee Harvey Oswald. People refused to believe he did what he did because of ideological beliefs, even though he made this extreme beliefs clear. It was easier for people to accept that he was a madman. This is something that we have repeatedly encountered over the years.”

Indeed, much of terrorism is associated with terrorist groups themselves. “It starts getting harder to define people as terrorists when they are literally lone wolves without any association to a proper group,” explained Stuart Gottlieb, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Roof acted alone, insofar as authorities have been able to determine. Though Roof made white supremacist remarks and clearly sympathized with apartheid, his affiliation to any proper hate or terrorist group has not been disclosed, if it even exists. Reached by email, the leader of the Aryan Nation World Headquarters said he had not heard of Dylann Roof prior to the shooting, though it remains unclear if Roof was a member of a smaller sect of the hate group or a member of a division of the KKK in South Carolina.

A 25-year veteran of the FBI who worked on the Joint Terrorism Task Force, Don Borelli noted the discrepancies in how terrorists are labeled. “If you look at this from an international terrorism perspective, we have kids that go online and want to be part of ISIS, they go out and commit crimes and some attempt to go to Syria. We label those acts terrorism. But sometimes, these kids have never left the country and have never met any real terrorists,” Borelli told Newsweek. Borelli noted the importance the FBI places on a person’s affiliation to a group in labeling someone a terrorist.

“We don’t need an institution to authenticate moments of domestic terrorism,” Robert Chase, a former public historian with the College of Charleston and current professor at Stony Brook University, told Newsweek. “The murderer did associate himself with symbols of white superiority and violence. The language he chose to use has always centered on white domestic terrorism: the fear that African-American men would sleep with white women. This is what animated lynchings since the 19th century and this is what animated his racial violence this week.”

Following Roof’s first court appearance on Friday, the Justice Department announced the shooting would be investigated as both a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism.