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.