FBI Director Comey has been receiving a lot of criticism since opining, a mere two days after the Charleston Massacre, that terrorism doesn’t apply in this case. I’ve written about my disagreements with Comey’s analysis of America’s problem with racism before and, I suppose, this new controversy is an extension of that same continuum of faulty foundational beliefs.
We should note here that Comey made his statement a day before Roof’s manifesto was discovered and, presumably, didn’t have prior knowledge of its contents. That said, by the time Comey made his statement, Roof’s behavior and statements up to and during the massacre were widely known.
First, let’s address the parts that Comey obviously gets wrong:
- Just based on Roof’s statement about the people in his presence “having to go” clearly fulfills the “terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry” of Comey’s statement.
- The discovery of Roof’s manifesto and an exhaustive explication of his motives leaves us without any doubt as to a political component.
But here is where we run into a problem… Can we compare Roof’s actions to those of Timothy McVeigh? Can we compare them to those of the Unabomber? The Symbionese Liberation Army? How about Charles Manson? The PLO? Sinn Fein? ETA?
See? None of those fit and that is because when we use the generic term terrorism, we lose a uniquely American historical component: Jim Crow white supremacy. This specific type of hate crime has no equivalent in any other country’s legal system and, therefore, doesn’t really have a label, when it should.
In yet another example of an issue that is not being properly reported on by US mainstream media, The UK’s BBC website has a good explanation of the conundrum that is the way this crime is being handled, legally:
“What is the legal difference between hate crimes and terrorism in the US?
Hate crimes are not separate charges, but an “enhancement” to an existing charge, like assault or murder. Prosecutors use this option to increase the severity of the punishment for those crimes – a potential sentence for a hate crime assault would be higher than an assault with no hate crime enhancement.
In the US, a hate crime is generally defined as “motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation”.
Many – but not all – US states have their own hate crime statutes that apply to charges prosecuted under state laws.
Terrorism charges are discrete offences, including charges like material support for terrorist groups and use of weapons of mass destruction.
Roof was charged with nine counts of murder. That charge feels wrong. Replacing murder with terrorism, for me, doesn’t yet make it feel right. Those were no mere murders, and it was no mere terrorism.
In his New York Times op-ed, In Charleston, a Millennial Race Terrorist, Charles M. Blow writes:
“There are so many threads to pull on this story that one hardly knows where to begin, but let’s begin here: Roof was only 21 years old. He is a millennial race terrorist.” (*my emphasis)
“Then there is the question of whether to call this terrorism. Terrorism, as commonly defined, suggests that the act must have some political motivation. (By defining it this way, we conveniently exclude that long legacy of racial terrorism as a political tool of intimidation and control in this country.) And yet, this case may even reach that bar.”
Blow, in his conclusion, doesn’t suggest a change of terminology. In it, he defends the usage of “terrorist,” though in the title and body of his essay, certainly questions the significant omissions from the charges. He’s one of a scant few to do so.
Terrorism only partially describes what white supremacy includes. Our legal terminology just doesn’t have in it a term and all of its associated definitions for race-based killings. We no longer use Jim Crow-era terms and legal definitions when charging white supremacist murderers with their crimes. We should.
While I am not necessarily advocating we go back to using any particular legal term, I am of the mind that acts like Roof’s should have their own special terminology, one that carries with it the long history of American anti-Black hate.
Until a better term is offered, Charles M. Blow’s “race terrorism” is the best alternative we have.
FBI Director: Charleston Shooting not an Act of Terrorism – KTUL.com – Tulsa, Oklahoma
Posted: Jun 20, 2015
BALTIMORE, Md. — FBI director James Comey said Friday that while his agency is investigating the murder of nine people in Charleston, S.C. as a hate crime, it is not an act of terrorism.
He said due to the lack of political motivation for his actions, alleged shooter Dylann Roof is not a domestic terrorist.
“Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it’s more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don’t see it as a political act. Doesn’t make it any less horrific the label but terrorism has a definition under federal law,” he said during a visit to Baltimore.
Affidavits from the Charleston police department claim Roof “with malice and aforethought” shot nine African American parishioners at Emmanuel AME Church with a .45 caliber handgun.