Since 9/11, the United States has engaged in two wars in an effort to battle terrorism and to keep Americans safe. As a consequence, Americans associate terrorism with an international threat. Billions of dollars and countless American lives were lost to promote the illusion of national security. However, when Americans commit violence against their fellow Americans, we are hesitant to label it as terrorism.
In the case of the Charleston shooting, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a historic pillar of the Black community, with the intent to kill. He sat silently in the Bible study for an hour before announcing his intent to incite a race war and opening fire on the worshippers. According to the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism, the act must intend (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; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.” Therefore, by this definition, it is evident that Roof committed a domestic terrorist attack by using violence as a means to intimidate the African-American population in Charleston, South Carolina.
As I mentioned previously, Americans have a perception of terrorism as being an external threat. Roof does not embody the standard profile or image of a terrorist. While he is a radical, loner with a white supremacist agenda this label is not uncommon in America although, most do not act on their hatred. Dylann Roof did. The combination of his racially motivated actions and political agenda made his crime both a hate crime as well as an act of domestic terrorism.
At first, the media was reluctant to classify the shooting as a domestic terrorist attack. In the past, crimes committed by white Americans have not been characterized as such. A consequence of the Septempter 11 attacks is that terrorism has become increasingly associated with the Muslim faith. However when white men commit mass murders, the cause for their actions is determined to be mental instability or defect. There is a clear discrepancy on how Americans define terrorism. As a culture, we determine violent acts to be forms of terrorism if the perpetrator’s appearance, faith and culture fit a certain description. If the Charleston shooter was not white, I am positive that the media would have not hesitated to define his actions as terrorism. But, because Dylann Roof is a young, white man it was first characterized as a hate crime.
It is easier to associate terrorism with an external, foreign threat than to accept that our neighbors and fellow Americans may be capable of inflicting mass violence based on a hatred of other Americans. This double standard lulls the collective American psyche into a false sense of security believing that within our borders, we are safe. Dylann Roof’s actions have dented this widely held belief. As a society, we must challenge this misguided perception and redefine terrorism to include domestic, as well as international threats.