In the wake of Dylann Roof’s murder of nine African American churchgoers engaged in Bible study in Charleston, South Carolina, many have suggested that his massacre should be labeled a terrorist attack.
After all, Roof did what we did, in his words, to ignite a “race war.” He authored a racist manifesto and saw his killing spree as a proactive measure to prevent black people from taking over America. According to witness testimony, he purposefully left one person alive so she could report what had happened to others as a warning.
According to the FBI, “domestic terrorism” includes any illegal activity occurring within the territorial U.S. that endangers human life and is intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or the government. So it seems like the shoe fits.
Determining whether or not Roof is a terrorist, however, is more than an empirical question. It is also an ideological and political one.
For example, even before he knew the full facts of the case, FBI Director James Comey declared that Roof’s actions were not terrorism because they were not a “political act.”
Comey’s statement dumbfounds in its willful disregard of not only the facts of this case, but also his own bureau’s legal definition.
Including Roof in the category of “terrorism,” then, seems like a useful reprimand of Comey’s indifference. As well, given the enhanced post-9/11 racist scapegoating of Arabs and Muslims as terrorist by nature, classifying Roof as a terrorist seems to strike a blow against state racism and gross state hypocrisy.
Yet the problem with this strategy is actually exemplified by Comey’s evasions insofar as it mistakes “terrorism” for an objective category of political violence, rather than a political and ideological determination regarding the enemies of US global power.
This tension is evident at the simple level of definition. For example, although the FBI definition allows that civilians can be legitimate targets of domestic terrorism, this is never taken to mean that state actions constitute domestic terrorism.
Atrocious as Dylann Roof’s actions surely were, they were no less racist, vicious, or lawless than the brutal attacks on black lives waged daily by police officers across the country. Among the more notorious include Freddie Gray, immobilized and killed by police officers who severed his spine; Eric Garner, choked to death in broad daylight; Rekia Boyd, shot dead standing on the sidewalk with friends in front of her house; John Crawford, shot dead in a WalMart; Akai Gurley, shot dead in the stairwell of his home; a handcuffed Oscar Grant, lying face down on a train station platform, shot in the back and killed by police; and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot dead while playing in a public park.
Indeed, there is a veritable epidemic of police violence against black people in the United States, and yet no one has suggested that cops are terrorists, or that black people, neighborhoods, or communities are the victims of domestic terrorism. And this is so even if the point of killing black people may very well be to “intimidate or coerce” black populations – and really, what other “point” to such wanton violence could there possibly be?
Second, the FBI’s own practices make clear the effective meaning of “terrorism.” According to counterterrorism analyst Daryl Johnson, the threat of rightwing domestic terror is neither new nor diminishing, yet the FBI has little to no interest in tracking it. Former domestic counterterrorism agent Mike German notes that the FBI doesn’t even keep accurate statistics on right-wing domestic terrorism, leaving that to private organizations, who count the incidents differently depending on definitional and methodological approach.
Why would the US government openly ignore terrorist threats to its citizenry, foolishly leaving the public vulnerable and unprotected?
Simple: right-wingers and white supremacists aren’t Muslims.
As obscene or ridiculous as that may sound, it does not make it less true. While any number of analysts and agencies are busy investigating “Islamic terror,” next to none pay any attention to the kind of attacks like those perpetrated by Dylann Roof in Charleston or Scott Roeder in Kansas in 2009 (who killed late-term abortion doctor George Tiller – also, incidentally, in a church).
As Johnson and German emphasize, the FBI just isn’t interested in domestic terrorism unless it is linked to Islam.
Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that there is remarkably little data on deaths from police shootings?
This exceedingly narrow and ideological view of terrorism did not begin with 9/11, even if its most recently famous incarnation was George W. Bush’s embarrassing and frequently ungrammatical condemnations of what he once called “Islamo-fascism.”
The fake notion of “Islamo-fascism,” though, is actually a clue regarding the history of terrorism and terrorism discourse in the United States, which has its roots in post-WWII condemnations of totalitarianism and, later, the Soviet Union, both of which were characterized as monstrous threats to “civilization” and modern, Western democracy. Conflating the Nazis with Stalin, “totalitarianism” became a convenient catchword for all that stood opposed to the nobility and greatness of the American way. Later, as Reagan made famous, the Soviet Union’s “Evil Empire” was the enemy to be conquered.
The breakup of the Soviet bloc and the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, left the US without an evil enemy to vanquish. This is when “terrorism” really comes into its own. Thanks in large part to agitation from Israeli powerbrokers (Netanyahu in particular), a new international evil enemy was forged: the Muslim terrorist. Concomitant with the advent of plane hijacking as a political stunt to gain attention for the Palestinian liberation struggle, the US and Israel found an ideological lever by which to manufacture their alliance as a civilization under attack: the backward savagery of Muslim terrorism.
Thus it is perhaps unsurprising that the figure of the terrorist is not only irretrievably Arab and Muslim in US discourse, but also originally Palestinian. Indeed, the Palestinian hijacker/suicide bomber is the figure of terrorism par excellence in the US (and Israeli) imaginary. Left unremarked, of course, is the state’s political violence once again: Israeli colonization, dispossession, massacre, geographical confinement, unlawful administrative detention and mass incarceration, humiliation, and slow starvation, much less the vast American funding of these atrocities.
Of course, these are not considered acts of terrorism, despite their targeting of civilians with the express intention to “intimidate or coerce” the Palestinian people.
And this is also why Dylann Roof is not a terrorist, regardless of what the FBI definition “officially” says.
Dylann Roof is not a terrorist because he didn’t attack civilized people or, in other words, take any lives that matter. Rather, he killed black people, whose lives, in painful counterpoint to the profound resistance struggle of the Black Lives Matter movement, don’t really matter, or not much anyway, to the FBI. This is as true about Dylann Roof’s actions as it is of those of U.S. police officers, IDF forces in the Occupied Territories, or the US armed forces in its drone strikes, occupations, and proxy wars. Because these target black people, Palestinians, and Muslim people and populations around the world (among others), their actions are not terrorism but rather security and self-defense.
In other words, political violence committed against the enemies of America is not terrorism but law and order. Political violence committed by enemies of America, on the other hand, is terrorism. (In the case of African Americans, it is thuggery – and placing the “thug” side by side with the “terrorist” makes clear the racialized population control that is the real purpose of the US criminal legal system.)
Rather than an empirical category of demarcatable political violence, then, “terrorism” in US (and Israeli) usage is better understood as a name for the violence committed by those who are more properly understood as its objects. This is why Comey cannot see Roof as a terrorist and why there can never be any legitimate form of Palestinian resistance. According to the moralized dictates of US imperial discourse, African Americans and Palestinians are thugs and terrorists, savage and violent by nature, those against whom violence is always justifiable, if not vital, to the survival of “civilization.”
Let’s not be fooled, then, by the FBI’s “official” definition of terrorism, much Comey’s failure to consistently apply it.
Even more than this, though, let’s not become complicit with America’s racialized criminology by seeking to expand the domain of terrorism so as to include white supremacists like Roof within it.
“Terrorism” is a keyword of empire that demarcates Islamicized enemies of US imperial policy, whether foreign or domestic, just as “thug” demarcates racialized Black enemies of the US domestic order. Dylann Roof is neither a terrorist nor a thug on this definition, and it is in nobody’s interest to enlist ourselves in America’s imperial project in order to make him into either.
Let’s call Dylann Roof what he is – a white supremacist who, in murdering African American people in broad daylight simply because they were African American, effectively upheld the founding principles of the US state and advanced them. In seeking to, in his words, “take” his country “back,” Dylann Roof enacted what we must openly admit is not simply an American tradition best relegated to a Confederate past, but in actual fact the American way, past and present: white supremacy, colonization, genocide, and empire.
If Black lives do, indeed, matter, then attacks on them do not constitute terrorism, but rather longstanding practice and official US policy. Let’s decline, then, to affirm our commitment to the American way by branding Roof a terrorist this 4th of July. Instead, let’s commit ourselves to dismantling America’s ongoing domestic and global assault on liberation, equality, and self-determination.
A version of this piece was first published by Ma’an this week.