Why is Dylann Roof not facing charges of terrorism?

Dylann Roof is currently facing federal hate crimes charges. Critics have questioned why the Justice Department has not included charges of terrorism.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, June 18. Ms. Lynch announced that Dylann Roof, the man accused of slaying of nine black church members in Charleston last month was indicted July 22, on 33 federal counts, including hate crimes, firearms violations and obstructing the practice of religion, which could include the death penalty.

Critics say the federal charges against Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, aren’t what they should be.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Wednesday that the Justice Department will bring federal hate crime charges against Mr. Roof, for allegedly targeting the victims of the shooting due to their race and religion. Some, however, say that Roof should be indicted on terrorism charges instead. The issue has sparked a national debate about when violence is terrorism and when it’s not.

“There is no question, [many critics] 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,” the Monitor reported several days after the shooting.

According to the FBE, acts of domestic terrorism “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."

Julia Craven argues in the Huffington Post that the South Carolina massacre fits that definition:

“Roof’s intentions were clear. He wanted to murder black people at a black church in order to advance his anti-black agenda as well as to intimidate a civilian population – the latter goal being a key factor that, under U.S. terrorism laws, denotes whether a particular act of violence constitutes terrorism.” 

But she also points out that since 9/11, Americans’ conception of terrorism has changed. Now, Americans view an act of terrorism as something that is carried out by an external group that can easily be viewed as an “other.” Lone gunmen, on the other hand, are more frequently seen as misguided, disturbed, “cultural aberrations.”

“It’s possible that Roof was not charged with terrorism because he acted alone, rather than in concert or inspired by an organization that the federal government has formally designated as a terrorist group.... Then, one has to consider that U.S. terrorism laws are heavily focused on foreign threats carried out or influenced by terrorist organizations. They also emphasize bombings and plane hijackings as opposed to shootings. As far as we know, Roof doesn’t meet any of these criteria,” Ms. Craven adds.

And even high-level officials seem unsure about how to characterize the shooting.

"We think that this is exactly the type of case that the federal hate crimes statutes were, in fact, conceived of to cover," Attorney General Lynch said Wednesday, while announcing that a federal grand jury had indicted Roof.

"Racially motivated violence such as this is the original domestic terrorism,” she added.

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