Can we call the South Carolina shooting suspect a terrorist?

  • Masha Gessen, Reuters
  • Updated: Jun 24, 2015 05:11 IST

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.

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