WASHINGTON -- Federal charges against Dylann Roof, who allegedly massacred nine people at a historically black church in South Carolina, came swiftly.
Just over a month after Roof committed what is, arguably, the most heinous act of anti-black terrorism since the days of the civil rights movement, a federal grand jury issued a 33-count indictment for federal hate crimes and firearms charges.
“Hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism and we feel that the behavior that is alleged to have occurred here is archetypal behavior that fits the federal hate crimes statutes and vindicates their purpose,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters during a press conference on Wednesday.
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. He also planned the attack several months in advance and chose Charleston's Emanuel AME Church because of its historical and political significance. So why wasn’t Roof indicted on terrorism charges?
Black churches have long been vulnerable to attacks committed by white terrorists because they have always sat at the crux of the black freedom struggle, which makes them inherently political -- a point hit by Slate’s Matthew J. Cressler:
Black churches exist as simultaneously religious and political institutions, and that has made them targets. Sermons unpacking scriptural passages also mobilize resistance to racism; hymns that praise God affirm the value of black life in the same breath. For this reason, institutions like Emanuel AME stand as affronts to white supremacy. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, black churches have long distinguished the “Christianity of Christ” from slaveholding religion, the “Christianity of this land” that is Christian in name only. Because of this, black churches have served as ever-present threats to white power.
Lynch addressed the lack of a terrorism charge on Wednesday in response to a question from a Huffington Post reporter. She said she doesn’t want people to think the case is being taken any less seriously because that term isn’t being employed.
“People may feel that because we have such a strong emphasis on terrorism matters since 9/11, that when we talk about matters and don’t use that terminology that somehow we don’t consider those crimes as serious,” she said. “And I want to be clear -- nothing could be further from the truth than that. This type of crime in particular -- racially motivated violence -- for which a federal law was specifically enacted to cover is of grave importance to the federal government.”
Lynch has a point, and the Justice Department said earlier that it was investigating the Charleston shooting as a possible "act of domestic terrorism." But it is still important to flesh out why Roof hasn't been indicted as a terrorist.
Since 9/11, many Americans seem to believe that only Islamic extremists commit terror attacks, even though the data don’t support this notion and these days, local U.S. law enforcement agencies are actually more concerned about the activities of right-wing extremists.
A study released by the New America Foundation last month showed at least 48 people have been killed stateside by right-wing extremists since the Sept. 11 attacks -- almost double the number of those killed by self-identified jihadists in that time frame. Most of these attacks were carried out by radical anti-government groups or white supremacists.
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. Also, multiple definitions of terrorism exist, making it difficult to say what exactly is and isn’t terrorism. 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. He didn’t belong to any designated terrorist organization. He didn’t use a bomb, which could have qualified as a “weapon of mass destruction” under federal law. He opted for a .45-caliber Glock and hollow-point bullets. And, outside of nine black lives, he didn’t hijack anything.
But still Roof's attack was, by his own words, politically motivated and intended to strike fear in a specific group of people. Sounds like terrorism.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder told The Huffington Post that the shooting was "clearly an act of terrorism" and should serve as a "wake-up call" to the American public regarding domestic terror threats.
"We have a young man who apparently becomes radicalized as the result of an incident and becomes more radicalized as a result of what he sees on the Internet, through the use of his computer, then goes and does something that by his own words apparently is a political violent act," Holder said. "With a different set of circumstances, and if you had dialed in religion there, Islam, that would be called an act of terror. It seems to me that, again on the basis of the information that has been released, that's what we have here. An act of terror."
FBI Director James Comey, on the other hand, had a less confident response when HuffPost asked whether the Charleston shooting would be called terrorism if Roof's manifesto had indicated it was inspired by the Islamic State, instead of white supremacist rhetoric.
"I'd investigate it I think probably just as we're investigating now, to understand what his motivation was and whether it was designed to coerce a civilian population," Comey said. "So we'd investigate it the same, and then in deciding what charges to bring, we'd look at it through the framework of the individual statutory provisions to see whether they'd apply."
Whether senior law enforcement officials do or do not consider the Charleston massacre to be terrorism, many other people won't. Some Americans -- mainly white ones -- simply don’t see race as political. Couple this with the public's very narrow understanding of who the terrorists are -- which can be attributed in part to how such cases are often framed by authorities and the media -- and most Americans probably won't look beyond Muslims.
“Al Qaeda killed almost 3,000 people on 9/11. The United States’ subsequent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and more limited counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen -- have meant the US public has spent over a decade imagining the enemy to be a foreign Muslim man with an AK-47 or a suicide vest,” Timothy McGrath wrote for the GlobalPost. “Combine that with a 24-hour news cycle that privileges simple narratives over nuance, and with policymakers who have too often shown a lack of knowledge about the history, politics, and cultures of the places where the US wages war and sees threats -- and you’re looking at some entrenched, perpetually reinforced stereotypes about Muslims, Islam and terrorism.”
Since 9/11, McGrath pointed out, the primary targets of domestic counterterrorism policies have been Muslim Americans. Recall the New York Police Department's partnership with the FBI and the CIA to craft a secret “Demographics Unit” that monitored and infiltrated mosques, spied on Muslim students and collected data on the city’s Muslim population.
“There was no probable cause, no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing,” McGrath wrote of the demographics unit. “This was profiling, pure and simple. After six years, the NYPD closed the unit. It had never produced a lead or an arrest.”
We didn't always think this way. America’s first anti-terrorism law, known as the Third Force Act or the Ku Klux Klan Act, was a direct result of violence inflicted upon black people. Congress passed the act in 1871, causing nine South Carolina counties to be placed under martial law and resulting in thousands of arrests. The Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1882.
David Pilgrim, founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum at Michigan's Ferris State University, told HuffPost in February that he found it offensive that after Sept. 11, some Americans bemoaned that terrorism had finally breached U.S. borders.
"That is ignoring and trivializing -- if not just summarily dismissing -- all the people, especially the peoples of color in this country, who were lynched in this country; who had their homes bombed in this country; who were victims of race riots," Pilgrim said. Lynching victims were often burned, castrated, shot, stabbed -- and in some cases beheaded.
But the bottom line now is that white people, whatever horror they commit, aren’t generally seen as terrorists and violence against black people is no longer viewed as a terrorist act. America can never pay us what it owes us, but an acknowledgement of our worth would be nice.
You still might ask whether it matters that Roof hasn't been charged with terrorism. Nine murders should keep him safely behind bars for the rest of his life.
I’ll let Goldie Taylor from Blue Nation Review start: "Rule of law."
It matters because no one in the history of the United States has ever been charged and convicted of terrorism specifically against a black victim. Had his victims been children in a federal building rather than black people in the basement of a church, the charges would likely differ. Had Roof been Muslim, he would have undoubtedly been dubbed a terrorist within hours of the attack. African Americans are entitled to the same legal protections as every other race and ethnicity. And when we are victims of a terrorist attack, it should be prosecuted as such.
The symbolism here matters. Not charging Roof with terrorism suggests that black deaths are not politically significant, that the ideology of racism is not political and that white supremacism is not a real threat to the nation. Wrong, wrong and wrong.
Not charging Roof with terrorism shows a disregard of how violence against black folks, historically, has been organized and calculated -- as opposed to random and isolated. Not charging him with terrorism means that we're not connecting the dots between the Ku Klux Klan and America's network of 21st century haters. Wrong again.
Nine valuable individuals died in Emanuel AME Church because Dylann Roof wanted to eradicate the idea that black lives matter. Say it: That's terrorism.
Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.