Almost immediately after the shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday, officials announced that the massacre of nine black churchgoers studying the Bible downstairs would be investigated as a “hate crime.”
After all, the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, wore racist symbols, announced he was there “to shoot black people” before opening fire, and apparently targeted the historic congregation because it was black.
For many black Americans and others, however, the attack was by definition an act of “terrorism,” a word that connotes acts against the American way of life itself – an attack against the country.
The issue became part of the national conversation about race the day after the attacks, and the various cultural lenses through which many Americans define shootings and acts of extreme violence – like the massacre at Emanuel on Wednesday.
“Here we have a white male who premeditated this attack, went into a historic black church on the anniversary of a slave rebellion, and who also wore white supremacist badges – and here we are having conversations about the problems of gun violence and the possibility of mental illness?” says Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, referencing the failed revolt planned by a cofounder of Emanuel, Denmark Vesey, on June 17, 1822.
There is no question, Ms. Sarsour and others believe, that if the shooter had been a Muslim American who had massacred nine white people during a Bible study in the sanctuary of a historic church, the headlines across the country would have reported a major terrorist act, a religiously motivated attack on all Americans.
But many observers say that the actions of Mr. Roof immediately fell into a very different cultural lens: the disaffected white loner, perhaps mentally ill, isolated from the community. In other words: a cultural aberration.
And there's a sense, too, many maintain, that a "hate crime" is an individual act, easily dismissed, while "terrorism" evokes the sense of an "other" who has attacked the national family as a whole.
“While white suspects are lone wolfs … violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion,” wrote Anthea Butler, professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in an essay in The Washington Post. “Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes.”
Still, Roof immediately brought to mind the long list of mass murders by troubled young white men, such as Adam Lanza and James Holmes, who brought guns into classrooms and movie theaters and opened fire randomly.
And in the era before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Timothy McVeigh, a white veteran from the first Gulf War, was considered a domestic terrorist for his bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. He was convicted of using a weapon of mass destruction and murder and executed in June 2001.
Since then, the cultural landscape has radically changed, many note, and terrorism has become associated more with groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, putting the religiously motivated Boston Marathon bombing by the Tsarnaev brothers into different light for most people.
“A hate crime is an add-on to a crime,” said Tarek Ismail, a former fellow at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute and co-author of a paper about bias in terrorism prosecutions, to the website Vice. “The same is true of terrorism. Often, they're one and the same. The difference is ‘intent to coerce.’ Someone writing the law would tell you that a hate crime is a normal, run-of-the-mill crime [that's] perpetrated against a group because of the nature of that group. But it doesn't have that extra element of also intending to scare the [expletive] out of that group,” – the definition of terrorism.
But the issue here is less the legal definition of terrorism than the racial lenses that are used to understand the nature of a crime and the motivations of massacres like the one Roof is accused of perpetrating.
“Could it be that America, with its deeply troubling racist past, is refusing to call Dylann Roof a terrorist because it would then mean that so many other people in our history who inflicted such pain would also have to fit the bill?” asked Shaun King on the liberal blog Daily Kos.
Scholars point out that the nation’s first federal antiterrorism law targeted the Ku Klux Klan in the 19th century. It was used to declare martial law in South Carolina in 1871 to fight the racist group and its campaign of terror against black Americans. The law was eventually declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, however.
Since the election of President Obama in 2008, the number of white supremacist and racist groups in the US has skyrocketed 813 percent, from 149 that year to 1,360 in 2012, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such groups.
“The term ‘terrorist’ demonstrates to the public how severe and how dangerous” these crimes are, says Sarsour. “Because if we just say it’s mental illness or just a senseless act of violence, then it sends a message to other people that it’s not that close to them, that it’s not as grave of a crime.”
“Then we end up detracting from a very important conversation about the nature of domestic white male supremacist terrorism,” Sarsour says.