Let’s Call Charleston Shooting What It Was: A Terrorist Attack

Charles D. Ellison
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Children pay their respects in front of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015, after a mass shooting at the church that killed nine people.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s become quite the national pastime (centuries in the making, in fact) that when violent, racially motivated and genocidal-like tragedies befall African Americans, the reflex is to avoid calling it what it is: domestic terrorism.

State, local and federal authorities, however, will want us all to find comfort in the “hate crime” stamp after Wednesday night’s horrific mass attack on Charleston, S.C.’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. They have—thankfully—found the suspect, but in doing so, they’ve been pressed to classify it all as simply hate crime.

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Pretty soon he’ll be just another “mentally ill” guy with a gun.

There’s this unrealistic and supremely naive belief that terrorism is a Third World event, that even when it has hit the homeland, the notion that it can actually be baked here flies in the face of every Mickey Mantle, Mickey Mouse thing America loves about itself.   

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Some might dismiss this as a trivial rant on word play and gumball-machine semantics. But in these cases, it’s extremely vital that we stop fooling ourselves and make the necessary distinctions between what constitutes a hate crime and what constitutes domestic terrorism. A 2013 Congressional Research Brief (pdf) devoted to the topic acknowledges that “[i]n fact, the Bureau’s practical, shorthand definition of domestic terrorism is ‘Americans attacking Americans based on U.S.-based extremist ideologies.’”

The Charleston killings were, based on all aspects of the event, that kind of act, whether or not law enforcement and squeamish cable-network anchors are willing to admit it. And although experts (pdf) suggest that the area between hate crime and domestic terrorism is rather gray, there isn't much dispute in the research that the former is a by-product of the latter. Which means it’s all terrorism. Shooter Dylann Roof carefully selected a location of strategic political and cultural value to a community he specifically targeted, announcing the supporting agenda and leaving a witness alive to tell the story.

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Even one of the most prominent geopolitical analyst firms in the world, Stratfor, is keeping it real, calling the Charleston attack “another reminder of domestic terrorism.” Despite the lone wolf profile of the gunman, Stratfor suggests we shouldn’t forget that “white supremacist groups in the United States embraced the concept of leaderless resistance as an operational model long before jihadists did.”

Unless both media outlets and authorities require an expertly shot and choreographed YouTube video of a masked gunman assassinating each victim, there’s not much else to say other than the fact that this was no different from acts of terrorism committed by groups such as the Islamic State and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. Yet because African Americans are killed, with the killer identifying uncomfortable racist ideology as his reasoning, the public jumps into a knee-jerk distaste for a needed national talk on the institutionalized racist climate that triggers those acts in the first place.

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When small-cell terrorism or lone wolf acts of the Islamic State have hit home or allied European countries across the Atlantic pond, we’ve had very little trouble calling that terrorism. No one called the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices in Paris by a rogue band of radicalized French nationals a hate crime. Even when foiled homegrown gunmen attacked a racist and Islamophobic convention of hard-headed white conservatives doodling misguided Muhammad cartoons in Texas, there was no doubt in the national mind that these cats (young men of color, mind you) were terrorists.

Yet, let disgruntled and armed white guys with political chips on their shoulder open up on Muslims in a parking lot or mass-murder African Americans in a church, and we conveniently switch to hate crime mode. Let even a fishy pattern emerge when, a day later, shots are fired at another black church in Memphis, Tenn., and the reflexive modus operandi of mainstream media is to readily dismiss it as coincidental rather than as part of a long history of attacks on centers of black social, religious and political life.

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Just as the grisly bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church in 1963 that left four innocent black girls dead was an act of terrorism, so, too, was the first pre-9/11 act of mass terrorism on American soil that left 3,000 African Americans dead in Tulsa, Okla. As were the documented and politically motivated lynchings of 4,000 Americans, mostly black, by highly organized, well-connected and coordinated white supremacist groups, such as a Ku Klux Klan determined to terrorize an entire African-American population into slavelike submission.

During the Great Migration from South to North, not only were blacks in search of economic opportunity, but most—if not all—were leaving in response to the terrorism they had experienced in Southern society (not unlike modern populations in the Middle East displaced by the Islamic State). It prompted early-20th-century activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett to describe the conditions as “[a] new mob movement … wholly political, its purpose being to suppress the colored vote by intimidation and murder.”

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Terrorism, indeed, is as old as American democracy itself. Historian Robert Kumamoto traces it since the 17th century in the fascinating and unforgiving read The Historical Origins of Terrorism in America, 1644-1880. Ferris State University Jim Crow Museum founder and curator David Pilgrim argues, “If you think of these groups that behead now … it’s no more or less barbaric than some of the lynchings that occurred in the U.S.”

Slipping it into the hate crime file is a clever rhetorical fake posing as racial empathy, when all it really does is shield responding officials, politicians and pundits from much more difficult conversations on systemic racism. Rather than accept the mass killing of nine African Americans as part of a larger and much more sinister national trend of racist legacy unleashed on an entire population, it’s easier to slap a crime label on it as a way to conveniently keep all the incidents separated and therefore comparatively small or isolated.

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But this was not a moment where someone was mugged in an alley or shot on a corner. This was much bigger than that, especially at a time of great national reflection and tension. Not only is calling it a hate crime a great injustice to those who just died at the hands of an armed racist fanatic, but continuing to do so also creates a dangerous path ahead for all of us.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.

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