Why the South Carolina shooting suspect should not be called a terrorist

June 23, 2015
A woman puts flowers with ribbons bearing the names of the victims of a mass shooting that left nine dead during a bible study outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston

A woman puts flowers with ribbons bearing the names of the victims of a mass shooting that left nine dead during a bible study outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Was the massacre of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina an act of terrorism? Almost certainly, yes. Does this mean we should be calling the suspect, Dylann Roof, a terrorist, and prosecuting him as one? Probably not.

There is no single, universally accepted definition of “terrorism,” but the bare minimum on which terrorism scholars generally agree happens to be summed up in federal law, which defines domestic terrorism as violent crime intended “(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.” Put more simply, terrorists target civilians and do so in ways intended for maximum effect — to spread terror — in order to draw attention to their cause. From what we know so far about Dylann Roof’s apparent motivation and behavior, this definition fits.

Many people have noted that the only obvious difference between Roof and the people Americans have in recent years called terrorists is that Roof is white and not Muslim. And many people have been arguing that we should be calling Roof a terrorist as well. One petition, calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute Roof as a terrorist, has gathered over 50,000 signatures. Another petition, and many articles, have demanded that the media call Roof a terrorist.

But when we talk about how to label an act in the public sphere, we are arguing not only about the accuracy of a term but also about the purpose of using one word rather than another. Calling Dylann Roof a terrorist could have three kinds of consequences: legal, extralegal and rhetorical.

The petition addressed to the DOJ argues that it is imperative both to remove the case from the jurisdiction of the state of South Carolina and to prosecute it as an act of terrorism. Indeed, federal terrorism prosecutions are harsh, thanks in part to mandatory sentencing guidelines that include the so-called terrorism mark-up, which punish an illegal act more harshly if it was connected to an act of terrorism than if it was not. The wisdom and logic of these guidelines is questionable. One of the most remarkable cases of their application is that of the Newburgh Four, a group of poor black men who were blatantly entrapped by the FBI — and sentenced to 25 years in prison despite the judge’s expressed belief that they were guilty primarily of greed and “buffoonery.”

If prosecuted as a terrorist under federal law, Roof would likely face the death penalty. But the governor of South Carolina has already called for the death penalty in his case. Punishment doesn’t get any harsher than that, so calling Roof a terrorist would serve no clear pragmatic legal purpose.

The term “terrorism” has extra-Constitutional consequences: it opens the door to wiretapping, phone tapping, and other sorts of surveillance. It has opened the door to torture. I am fairly certain that the people calling for Roof to be labeled a “terrorist” don’t want more of that. Nor is the argument being made that there is a hidden plot or a conspiracy that needs to be uncovered in this case.

The rhetorical use of the word “terrorism” is probably the most salient here, even for people who appear to be making a legal argument. Journalist Glenn Greenwald has argued that the Dylann Roof case demonstrates that “terrorism” is a meaningless term that has no consistent application. I would say that we use the term when we want to “other” the perpetrator, to define him or her as both less than human and possessed of superhuman powers.

The federal government has just finished prosecuting another 21-year-old American for terrorism: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who will be sentenced by a federal judge in Boston on Wednesday for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. I have written a book about the Tsarnaev brothers, and in the two months since it was published, I have been accused, in print, of having “too much empathy” and of engaging in the “narrative of Muslim immigrant victimhood.” I don’t know if there is such a thing as having “too much empathy,” but I am reasonably certain that does not describe me. I also have no patience for victim narratives of any sort. But I do think that the Boston bombers’ life during the decade they spent in the United States and in the years before they came here is relevant to understanding their actions. More to the point, I think it is possible to gain some understanding of why they did what they did — not to justify their crime, nor to see it as pre-determined, but to gain a textured view of what happened, and perhaps of why these kinds of crimes occur.

Using the word “terrorism” does not bring us any closer to that understanding. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death; the judge in the case is bound by the jury’s verdict. The jury, for its part, arrived at its decision almost instantly, taking a day and a half to go through a 24-page questionnaire — just enough time to read out instructions and questions and take a count on each vote. The argument against the death penalty — and for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole — was, in essence, that the defendant was not a monster but a person. The problem isn’t that the jury rejected this argument: the problem is that it didn’t even entertain it. The way the word “terrorist” is used in the United States, in the media or in the courts, precludes seeing someone who took part in a terrorist act as a human being.

That, in turn, precludes understanding. Writing off horrific crimes as incomprehensible and irrational makes things easier in the short run — by giving us permission to stop thinking — but in the long run it ensures that crimes that stem from the same roots will be repeated again and again.

That’s why we shouldn’t be calling Dylann Roof a terrorist. In fact, at this point, we would be better off retiring the word altogether.

24 comments

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@Gressen We can both agree that Roof resulted to violent crime intended to intimidate or coerce a black civilian population. So please what does this define if not terrorism? Please do say. Will the terms terrorism be more appealing to you if Roof were Muslim or Arab or if the victims were white? You should understand this was different from Sandy Hook or the theater shooting in that those people were not targeted based on their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion; Charleston was based on race. Would your prognosis have remained the same if one of your beloved (God forbid) was among the victims? I assumed you are a very learned person so your piece defending the perceived defamation of Roof’s character as a terrorist is very insensitive, hypocritical, biased and bigoted. I also disagree with people who opined that you have too much empathy; I believe you may be bereft of empathy and devoid of the most intrinsic values that makes us decent human beings.

Posted by Sinners | Report as abusive

Sorry, Ms. Gessen, you’re simply wrong. The fundamental irrelevance of the terms used to describe what Roof did just serves to illustrate how morally bankrupt as a society we are. What most people of reasonable good will claim they cannot understand is the blood lust that subtly permeates almost all of our human interactions, and when it boils to the surface in a young man, our reactions are predictably obtuse. To parse the definition of ‘terrorist’ to the degree you have, and then proclaim it doesn’t fit the murders in Charleston completely misses the point. That is, given the right circumstances and intense pressures, there but for the grace of god, go you, and I, and almost everyone on the planet who isn’t already canonized…

We are essentially animals, and the sheen of civilization we adopt reveals only that the emporer has no clothes.

Posted by MusicIsMagic | Report as abusive

“Was the massacre of nine people at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina an act of terrorism? Almost certainly, yes. Does this mean we should be calling the suspect, Dylann Roof, a terrorist, and prosecuting him as one? Probably not.”

If the act was one of terrorism then it follows that the person who committed the act is a terrorist. You can’t have one without the other. Although it doesn’t necessarily follow that he he should be prosecuted as one, at least not when there are so many other laws under which he can be prosecuted.

Posted by chaemeleo | Report as abusive

Do you honestly think that the jurors would have sat down and “humanized” Tsarnaev if the word “terrorist” was dropped from the proceedings?

Your argument as to why we should not call Dylan Roof a terrorist, is the absolute BEST argument for why he should be identified as one. There is s desperate need to demonstrate that terrorists are not simply black or brown skinned people. That committing a crime is one thing, but to shout “Allahu Akbar,” transforms the same crime into something else entirely. The law is (allegedly) applied equally to EVERYBODY, and it needs to be done in that manner.

No matter what happens, the public will NOT seek to understand Dylan Roof. They want him to go away, so they can go back to pretending that America is perfect. They do it with every serial killer, school shooter, and mass murderer that comes along. Understanding is for the psychologists, not the public. The public wants to get back to worrying about the “real” problems (What will Apple Inc. release next) and not have to spend its energy trying to figure out the who, why, and how of criminal behavior.

Posted by Ibbyz1200 | Report as abusive

Interesting article.

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Calling him a terrorist perfectly first the current ‘lone-wolf’ rhetoric dispensed by most agencies to justify more funding for largely anecdotal threat.

Posted by Hulls | Report as abusive

Terrorism has the same meaning it did historically: acts of a group that believes it has no legal or military means of redress.

The real issue here is that by calling Roof “incomprehensible”, we excuse ourselves from *trying* to comprehend the issue. It’s very much comprehensible, just not pleasant or easy to fix.

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive

So to the author it’s feelings over facts again. He’s clearly a terrorist of some degree, but it might her fee-fees to here it so let’s call him something else. Ugh, and you wonder why people reject progressives in America so strongly – you want to ban words for the sake of over-sensitive cry-babies

Posted by DeckHero14 | Report as abusive

The author admits himself that this mass murderer fits the legal definition of terrorists, but he apparently just doesn’t like the legal consequences. Without getting sidetracked by the ongoing debates on punishment and privacy safeguards for the general public, I would point out that the “terrorist” designation will cause greater scrutiny of his affiliations, both persons and organizations, that may have a role in creating this tragedy. I think that is very important for the protection of the public in the future.

Posted by QuietThinker | Report as abusive

“Terrorists target civilians and do so in ways intended for maximum effect — to spread terror — in order to draw attention to their cause…”

He said he wanted to start a race war in America. Do you need him to say it again? He killed 3 times more people than the boston bombers, 3 times more people thant the unabomber. Terrorist. Don’t apologize for him. Hang him.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Terrorist. He admitted he wanted to start a race war in America. His targets were civilians. He killed 3 times more people than the Boston bombers did. 3 times more people than the unabomber did. It could not be more clear that he wanted the outcome to terrorize the public with maximum effect. Terrorist. I’m not sure why the author is apologizing for him, but it’s creepy.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

I agree. Roof is a mentally ill paranoid, delusional individual, not a member of any organization.

BTW, the author is a woman.

Posted by LetBalanceCome | Report as abusive

I don’t think you need to be a member of an organization to be constituted as a terrorist. It may be worth reconsidering the punishment we give terrorists and the legal ramifications and consequences of pursuing this type of accusation against the individual. But this man is a terrorist and he fits the definition of the FBI as the author so eloquently highlighted.

Posted by jrodr150 | Report as abusive

It is wrong to stop using a word just because it has been misused. There is no devil, there are no monsters, true, but a terrorist is a terrorist. This kid’s actions make him a terrorist. Nevertheless, we should stop pointing at him and deny his humanity and instead ask how one of us grew up to be like that.

Posted by JWKGRR | Report as abusive

A little roll playing..substitute a Middle Eastern man in place of Roof. Now, according to your rationale he would most certainly be called a terrorist..This is a blatantly racist article, and a veiled attempt to justify your twisted views.

Posted by Fred013 | Report as abusive

You don’t have to be a member of an organization to be a terrorist. Nowhere does the federal law mention organization.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

If he had a long beard and a turban, and this had been a vest with explosives in a baptist church….. killing 9 people…. would you call him a mentally ill lone wolf? Or would you call him a terrorist?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The definition of terrorism is to inflict a state of terror. Roof’s deliberate goal of taking lives fits that definition. It matters not the race, religion, national identity, or politics of the intended victims, the fact remains nine innocent people died because of a premeditated act of violence. We need to stop making up excuses protecting murderers under the guise of freedoms in the Bill of Rights which were never intended as legal justification for sheer malice. We need to enforce our laws on the books to make the legal system work, and scrap the ones that don’t work.

Posted by BadMammaJamma | Report as abusive

Yes. Terrorist. I am very surprised that so many other people believe so.

Posted by SUMTIMES | Report as abusive

A thoughtful essay tackling a difficult topic. But Gessen’s point deserves to be broadened. ‘Terrorism’ is just one of a handful of terms – ‘human trafficking’, ‘rights violation’, ‘sexual abuse’ – that are exploited opportunistically and highly selectively by states and NGOs to uptick state power and surveillance in totalizing ways. Real power in the US operates behind such terms, in service to hyper-financial elites and deep-state actors. But for the hoi polloi, these terms, once applied to a situation, stop all thinking, analysis, and distinction-making. The limitless expansion of state powers proceeds in ways that both the right and left appear powerless to critique. These terms operate by making human actors – such as those undertaking migration, often for good reason, or women who choose to work in sex trades – empty, will-less puppets who can totally be spoken-for by their supposed advocates & protectors. We’d have better policy for the underlying injustices these radioactive terms sloppily reference if we didn’t use these phrases and had actually to describe the situations in thick detail. But ‘better policy’ is hardly the end that, esp. the US’s governing elites, have in mind. Instead, like firemen moonlighting as arsonists, they want to foment a steady stream of crises as distraction and justification for a democracy-destroying perpetual ‘state of emeregncy’.

Posted by PatMorris | Report as abusive

Killed a targeted politician and civilians to “start a race war.”

Those were his own words and actions. There was no political ideology or terror behind that? Do you need him to draw a picture? This article is some lame terror-apology.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Hate groups such as KKK, Aryan nation and similar organizations are very much terror groups, and have been referred to as such by the FBI numerous times. As such, anyone affiliated with those groups and commits an act of mass violence should be (and correctly) classified as a terrorist.

The main difference between those those above groups and the likes of IS and Al Qaeda are their founding ideologies. IS was founded upon sectarian/religious beliefs. Al Qaeda was pseudo-religious but more concerned with geopolitics. KKK and Aryan Nation are of course concerned with the color of one’s skin. Regardless, all of these ideals are superficial in nature. Once society finally accepts that our domestic terrorists are as dangerous as foreign born ones, maybe our government will finally acquire enough courage to fight them with just as much zeal.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

He is not a terrorist, he did not invoke terror. He invoked sorrow in the families and the community – so that makes him a sorry SOB.

Posted by uc8tcme | Report as abusive

“Punishment doesn’t get any harsher than that, so calling Roof a terrorist would serve no clear pragmatic legal purpose.”

I do get a bit confused on this point, but I am under the impression that a Federal “Hate Crime” carries a max of life, so how can the state push for the death penalty if a federal hate crime charge carries a max life sentence? (I personally am for Life Without Parole although I recognize that comparable terrorists have received death).

Additionally, given the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘lone wolf’, I have no problem with additional scrutiny being used on psychotic “White” power groups and ‘segregationist’ groups that empowered the Dylan Roofs of the world.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive