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Why It Matters That the Charleston Attack Was Terrorism

The term clarifies what took place last week, but not what the response should be.

Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old who allegedly murdered 9 people at a black church in South Carolina, wanted to “start a race war,” one of his friends told ABC News. His Facebook profile showed him in a jacket “adorned with two flags––one from apartheid-era South Africa, the other from white-ruled Rhodesia––that have been adopted as emblems by modern-day white supremacists,” the New York Times reported. A witness says he spared the life of a woman inside the Emanuel A.M.E. Church so that she could relay what happened to the public. And his stomach-churning manifesto leaves no doubt as to his white-supremacist motives.

There is a word for premeditated violence against civilians by non-state actors who intend to stoke fear, anger, and social strife in service of their extremist ideology.

That word is terrorism.

Last week, a historic black church in South Carolina suffered a deadly terrorist attack. And media outlets were correct to hold off on applying that fraught label prior to confirming that the facts about the mass killing matched the earliest reports.

In recent U.S. history, terrorism has been invoked, manipulated and exploited to justify torture, the Iraq War debacle, a drone war that has killed countless innocents, an unprecedented program of mass surveillance on totally innocent people, and numerous abrogations of civil liberties, especially against Muslims. So there is good reason to insist on invoking the concept carefully and rigorously, when fixed definitions are met, rather than reflexively or to confer rhetorical heft. Murdering first graders is a heinous crime; but I do not call the massacre at Sandy Hook elementary a terrorist attack, as there is no evidence that Adam Lanza, the perpetrator, acted to stoke terror and advance a political agenda.

Since 9/11, many journalists have been less than rigorous with their application of the terrorism label; and many right-wing media critics are apoplectic, in the immediate aftermath of violence perpetrated by apparent Muslims, when careful journalists wait for evidence of motive rather than reflexively calling an attack “terrorism.” Insufficiently rigorous journalists error in the opposite direction too, failing to apply the terrorist label to violence that clearly meets any reasonable definition, sometimes due to political correctness and other times because the terrorism was perpetrated by a white person or a Christian or an Israeli. Today, “terrorism is typically associated with Muslim extremism,” Dara Lind writes. “When white people commit mass shootings, their ideology isn't as often brought to the fore. But because of the history of terrorism in the South, for many, labeling the Charleston church shooting terrorism is a way to recognize that black lives matter.”

By demanding that the Charleston church attack be dubbed terrorism even before key details were known, observers meant to assert some mix of other claims, including that even the earliest details of the attack very strongly suggested that it was rooted in racial hatred against blacks and white-supremacism; that the killer acted every bit as abhorrently as, say, the men who attacked the Boston marathon; that the black lives lost to this and other acts of white supremacist terrorism matter every bit as much as the lives lost on, say, September 11, 2001; that the press, the police, and politicians would’ve responded differently to this attack had it been perpetrated by a Muslim gunman; or that Charleston warrants a response in keeping with what follows attacks by Muslim terrorists.

I find the first four of these claims more compelling than the last.

As for how to respond to the Charleston attack, that is a bit more complicated. As noted, I call it a terrorist attack because it meets the accepted definition. And insofar as the mass murder and hate crime deserves the maximum opprobrium that a society can muster; insofar as the lives lost matter every bit as much as those of any murder victims ever have; and insofar as a radical, poisonous ideology is partly responsible for the killing, I endorse treating it “like a terrorist attack.”

But there is another sense in which it is vital that we do not treat Charleston “like a terrorist attack.” In America, the label terrorism often adds more heat than light; helps demagogues to manipulate the public; helps frighten people far beyond what is justified by the actual threat that members of the target group faces; clouds the judgment and moral compass of politicians, bureaucrats, police, prosecutors, and judges; and leads directly to the state needlessly victimizing innocent people.What a shame that a label increasingly seen as a proxy for caring can produce such a callous response!

The label can also makes it harder to squarely face the facts of what happened, a crucial prerequisite for taking the smartest possible steps to preventing recurrences.

“The collective denial of ongoing racism allows us... to classify the deaths of nine people killed in church as the alleged victims of a mentally ill individual rather than a racist terrorist,” Steven W. Thrasher wrote in The Guardian. He is correct that some reactions to the Charleston murders exemplify idiotic denials of ongoing racism. But the proper position to take on the mental health or illness of the perpetrator is agnosticism, pending the emergence of further evidence. Mental illness does not render one unable to perpetrate a terrorist attack, and its presence or absence should be treated as a discoverable fact, not a proxy for racial enlightenment or how seriously the attack is taken. This is not to ignore or dismiss the wrongheaded reflex of some media outlets to label all violent Muslims “terrorists” and all violent white men “mental cases.” It is to call for rigor in all cases.

For those persuaded that the Charleston attack was terrorism, but who also want to avoid pitfalls associated with that label, what should happen going forward? Without pretending to have a comprehensive answer, I’d suggest that after any terrorist attack, observers should work to deny terrorists one of their core aims: to terrorize people far out of proportion to the threat that their actions actually pose. In Charleston, the killer was successfully apprehended without shutting down a city, and the criminal justice system will prove perfectly capable of trying, convicting, and punishing him.

How best to fight his ideology is a thornier but no-less-necessary concern.

The attacker was an outlier even among self-avowed white supremacists, and no set of beliefs is more stigmatized in U.S. society than those he held. At the same time, he was radicalized by hate-group propaganda as surely as Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and is hardly the only radicalized white supremacist to carry out a devastating attack.

Years ago, after an attack on a Sikh temple that’s mostly forgotten because it wasn't regarded as terrorism, I argued that the reluctance to apply the label to acts carried out by white people is partly due to an awareness of what might happen next. When terrorism is invoked, many Americans––Republicans especially––have assented to indefinite detention; the criminalization of gifts to certain charities; secret, extrajudicial assassinations; ethnicity-based surveillance; and the torture even of people who might know about a future attack. Having undermined so many civil-liberties protections in pursuit of terrorists, the white majority and Republicans especially are alarmed at the idea of the homeland-security bureaucracy treating them as they’ve treated Muslim Americans.

The ideal solution would be rational efforts to combat terrorists of all kinds that are transparent, unlikely to create more radicals, and consistent with the Bill of Rights. America’s approach to counterterrorism presently falls short of those standards, confronting us with this reality: We cannot ignore fringe non-state actors who are determined, for various reasons, to murder innocents in service of evil ends; yet our response to terrorists often causes more harm than they could alone.

Historically, black churches have excelled as surely as any American institution at enduring and triumphing over terrorism without inflicting harm upon others. So while the radical love expressed by members of the Charleston congregation in the face of last week’s hate killings is heroic and awe-inspiring, it is not entirely surprising. As America grapples with how to avert a future terrorist attack of this sort, I suspect it can learn more from its black-church leaders than its political leaders.

May we have the wisdom to listen.