It would have been unfathomable a year ago for the phrase “white terrorism” to be used by the mainstream media. This shift in discourse is just one effect of the post-Ferguson moment in which there is a halting national discussion of systemic racism. Terminology matters because changing ideological frames is part and parcel of changing policies, institutions, and structures.
But is saying “terrorism” useful or misguided in describing an attack like the June 17 massacre of nine African-Americans in the Charleston Emanuel AME church, allegedly by avowed racist Dylann Roof?
Glenn Greenwald noted after the Charleston killings that terrorism is ‘completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever’
CNN stated, the next day, “Call it terrorism in Charleston,” while the Washington Post added that the reluctance to call Roof a terrorist was symptomatic of a racial double standard. The same day the New York Times and Foreign Policy focused on the debate around using the term while still lending weight to the view that the Charleston act was terrorism. Some writers, however, went through labored contortions to distinguish Roof’s act from terrorism.
FBI Director James Comey added to the controversy when he demurred in labeling the attack terrorism. Comey said on June 20, “Terrorism is act of violence done or threatens to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry so it’s more of a political act and again based on what I know so more I don’t see it as a political act. Doesn’t make it any less horrific the label but terrorism has a definition under federal law.”
There are at least four overlapping and interrelated uses of the word terrorism in the current debate. First and foremost is the U.S. legal definition, which distinguishes between international and domestic terrorism. Congress defines domestic terrorism as acts that are “dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion…” International terrorism also covers “violent acts.” It’s clear how meaningless this definition is given that throwing a rock or breaking a window at a political demonstration qualifies as terrorism. On the home front the FBI has labeled some animal rights and ecological activists as a “serious domestic terrorist threat.” The Bureau’s definition is so sweeping that in congressional testimony in 2004 it lumped in “direct action,” “economic loss,” and email and phone campaigns as evidence of terrorist activity. In 2009, the FBI arrested four animal-rights activists on terrorist charges for having “chalked defamatory comments on the public sidewalks.”
Being charged with terrorism for a child’s activity, writing in chalk on a sidewalk, is an example of the second function the term plays: that of an empty ideological force. Glenn Greenwald noted after the Charleston killings that terrorism is “completely malleable, manipulated, vapid term of propaganda that has no consistent application whatsoever.” Post-9/11, the state uses terrorism to demonize Muslims, enabling it to mobilize popular support for wars abroad and repression at home, while rarely applying it to violent white supremacists.
The third use of terrorism in the Charleston case is to counter the “war on terror” propaganda. Calling Roof and his ilk terrorists can reveal the hypocrisy of how the term is used. Since 2002 white supremacists have killed nearly twice as many people in domestic attacks than jihadis. The pace has increased after Obama took office in 2009 with at least twelve instances of white extremists committing politically motivated murders on U.S. soil. But the state and mainstream media focus is on the alleged threat of Muslim extremists. That perception has been continually stoked by the government’s prosecution of more than 500 Muslim-Americans for terrorism since 2001. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report determined all but four of the “high-profile domestic terrorism plots of the last decade … were actually FBI sting operations.” In 2013 more than 40 percent of the FBI’s entire budget was devoted to counterterrorism, a staggering $3.3 billion.
As such, the state apparatus has aggrandized funding and repressive powers by manufacturing terrorist cases against Muslims. Simultaneously, the government downplays the threat of right-wing terrorism while hyping the specter of anarchist extremism and eco-terrorism. A report from the Department of Homeland Security in April 2009 determined there had been “a resurgence in rightwing extremist recruitment and radicalization activity” and “white supremacist lone wolves pose the most significant domestic terrorist threat.” The report met with a howl of outrage from conservatives and was in effect repudiated by the Obama administration. On top of that, “the DHS dismantled the intelligence team that studied the threat from right-wing extremists and that the department no longer produces its own analytical reports on that subject,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In the wake of the Charleston killings, activists with roots in the Muslim or Arab world have highlighted the double standard. Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi tweeted, “A white supremacist massacres 9 black people in Charleston. It is a hate crime, it is terrorism, it is America 2015.” Similarly, the Council on American-Islamic Relations issued a statement expressing “solidarity with the African-American community following last night’s deadly terror attack at a Charleston, S.C., church.”
Describing Roof and other white extremists as terrorists is best done as a rhetorical ploy rather than calling for state action. Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic cautions that invoking terrorism means assenting to “ indefinite detention; the criminalization of gifts to certain charities; secret, extrajudicial assassinations; ethnicity-based surveillance; and the torture even of people who might know about a future attack.”
Using terrorism would seem to be dangerous, except there is another compelling reason to use it: the history of organized terrorism against African-Americans. Many commentators have drawn the link between Roof allegedly telling his victims, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country” to pogroms against Black communities. Many grotesque episodes of ethnic cleansing violence in the early 20th century were ignited by feverish rumors that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman, as in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida and Springfield, Illinois. Other anti-Black pogroms in Chicago and East St. Louis were also touched off by unfounded rumors or minor transgressions of segregation. Entire communities were wiped out, and in the case of Tulsa, some historians estimate 300 African-Americans were murdered in the orgy of violence that also destroyed a thriving Black business district. While the South is notorious for the thousands of documented lynchings of African-Americans in the century after the Civil War, ethnic cleansing that bordered on genocide at times was more common in the North and West–and it’s far less known. James Loewen, author of Sundown Towns, in reference to communities where Blacks were excluded by “force, law, or custom,” estimates whites expelled Blacks in up to 3,000 communities from 1890 to 1930 alone.
In this context, Roof’s act is one moment in a history of racist terror. It upends our notion of terrorism. The deadliest domestic terrorist attack in U.S. history is no longer a lone wolf, Timothy McVeigh, bombing the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, but the 1921 race riot in the same state that involved hundreds if not thousands of whites and culminated in the aerial bombing of Black Tulsa.
Calling Roof a terrorist helps historicize the nature of organized violence against African-Americans and other oppressed communities. But it needs to be done with an eye to dismantling the architecture of the war on terror. When the term covers everything from peaceful protests to white extremists’ rampages to government-manufacture plots to flying planes into skyscrapers, it is utterly meaningless. There is nothing to be gained from supporting terrorist enhancement charges against Dylann–he will die in prison in any circumstance. More important, backing greater state surveillance and repression of white extremists will inevitably be used by the FBI and other police forces against the left and minority communities. So while calling Roof a terrorist is important for the historical power it carries, it should be coupled with opposition to the war on terror and more government grabs for repressive powers.