Charleston requires the United States to ask once again, “Why do they hate us”, and take a hard look at “us”
A month after 21-year-old Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, it is clear that the aborted debate over whether to call that incident—and others like it—an act of “terrorism” or just a “hate crime” still has enormous political significance.
At the heart of Political America’s reluctance to use the T word is a refusal to engage with the increasingly political nature of the hate to which African Americans and other minorities are being violently subjected.
During the Republican Party presidential debate in early August in which candidates announced their firm commitment to combat Islamic terrorism around the world, attacks on African-Americans by white supremacists in the US were not seen a major threat to ‘homeland security’. Behind the reluctance of nomenclature lies a more dangerous slippage: If terrorist acts are relegated to the status of ordinary hate crimes, the latter can then be dismissed as minor misdemeanours. When two brothers assaulted a Hispanic man in Boston, citing presidential candidate Donald Trump’s views on “illegals” as their inspiration. the Republican presidential contender responded by calling his supporters “passionate”.
Labelling the July shooting in Charleston was crucial then, and it still is as the United States gears up for a long presidential election campaign. It will, in some ways, determine how the US is going to make sense of the growing number of mass murders by gunmen, the rise of the domestic terrorism threat from white supremacists against people of colour, and a continued dehumanisation of the black community from which the #BlackLivesMatter campaign emerged.
Claims that Roof was a “lone gunman”, from those such as Lindsey Graham and Fox News, were quickly dismissed. Roof was obviously inspired by ideology: he was sporting Rhodesian and Apartheid flags on his jacket, a Confederate flag on his car’s license plate, and made comments about the inferiority of African-Americans. He wanted to keep African-Americans from “taking over the country”, and as such had a political agenda. But regardless of his political motivations, he also clearly targeted a particular community. And here the argument is that Roof cannot be compared to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber and domestic terrorist, who, though a white supremacist himself, killed people indiscriminately. In Charleston, Roof did discriminate in choosing his targets—he purposely went to a predominantly black church.
That doesn’t make the Charleston shooting any less horrific than McVeigh’s bombing. Parsing the “terrorism” and “hate crime” debate, Robert Lane Greene reported in the Economist, “Arguably, a hate crime is worse. It is driven by pure revulsion for the victim or victims. By definition, its motivation has no redeeming qualities.”
Call for national response
But not all words carry equal weight. A “hate crime” encapsulates the action itself—a murder or assault against a person or people from a particular community. The term “terrorism”, on the other hand—a violent challenge to political order—determines how an event is understood in the national consciousness, and how policymakers respond to that threat. All the more so in a country politically, militarily and culturally obsessed with terrorism.
No doubt the word “terrorism” has been abused. It’s been used to justify state atrocities against civilians without due process, and make the globe America’s battlefield. As Glenn Greenwald argued, it is a word that “justifies everything but means nothing”. But precisely because of its overuse over the past decade, the term “terrorism” evokes the need for national action.
Labelling Charleston as a hate crime rather than an act of terror has two repercussions: one, it confines the tragedy of that event to a particular community. People’s irrational hate is something groups like African-Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, ethnic and religious minorities, unfortunately have to face. Events like these are thus seen as inevitable, not preventable, horrors. But Charleston was not an isolated hate crime. As Jelani Cobb wrote, “Even if [Roof] acted by himself, he was not alone.” Charleston is part of a trend of incidents of violence against the black community that have polarised the nation—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Dajerria Becton. Charleston is part of a trend that necessitated the Black Lives Matter movement—a reminder that black lives are not just dehumanised but violently assaulted all too frequently. Violence against African Americans cannot be confined to the group when it affects, and is affected by, the rest of the country. It is a nation’s problem, not a community’s problem.
The second repercussion is that it ignores the rising threat of domestic terrorists in the US. Studies have shown that right-wing extremism is more of a threat to American citizens than foreign terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. And groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights law firm, consider white supremacists as a rising global threat, specifically to minorities.
Taking political responsibility
Charleston as a hate crime assumes a certain complacency among policymakers: the perpetrator could be a lone gunman, or a person full of hate motivated by cultural considerations. It offers an excuse for continuing violence on black Americans, for continued avoidance of lax gun laws, for continued avoidance of discussion on the US’s history of slavery. A terrorist attack allows no such excuse. After 9/11, policymakers poured immense resources into the NSA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, and the Pentagon to thwart “foreign” threats. If Charleston is a terrorist attack, then policymakers are forced to answer the uncomfortable question of how they will prevent similar violence in the future. But as seen in this month’s Republican presidential debate, no one is pressing candidates to answer.
Of course, calling Charleston a terrorist attack avoids the long-term problem of how the US defines terrorism, and the violence it has carried out in the name of fighting it. But Charleston is also a unique event during a unique time, when the political rise of African-Americans is threatening the image some Americans have of the US and evoking calls to “take our country back”. And here, language and labels may limit our understanding of reality.
Charleston is a hate crime and it is terrorism. Charleston requires the United States to ask once again, “Why do they hate us”, and take a hard look at “us”.
Rozina Ali is a senior editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs in Egypt. She is on Twitter at: @rozina_ali)