Dylann Roof’s massacre of 9 black men and women in Charleston must be acknowledged for what it is – a terrorist act committed by a white supremacist. His crime, clearly racially motivated, cannot be passed off as the act of a lone, deranged individual. Instead, we must ask, as we would in other terrorist attacks: How was he radicalised? Is he part of a bigger movement?
The word ‘terrorism‘ has been so overused in recent years as to render it almost worthless. It has come to mean virtually any violent act by non-westerners against Western or Western-allied countries. The dictionary definition of terrorism is, ‘the unofficial or unauthorised use of violence and intimidation in pursuit of political aims’. There was no hesitation in labelling the Boston bombers as terrorists, so why is there any here? Roof’s manifesto makes it clear that he was openly racist and that he saw the extermination of blacks as essential to ridding the Southern States of their scourge.
Roof lives in South Carolina, a state that still flies the confederate flag and has streets named after confederate generals. It is not difficult to imagine how he became radicalised. One image shows him wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Roof, in his own words, ‘chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country’. In his manifesto, every time Roof mentions the word ‘white’ or ‘whites’, he capitalises it, clearly emphasising his belief in white supremacy. It was also no coincidence that he targeted the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, whose founder Denmark Vesey, unsuccessfully organised what would have been one of the greatest slave revolts in history in 1822.
It’s important to analyse media coverage of the massacre. While Muslims and blacks are routinely classed as terrorists and thugs respectively, any white person who commits mass murder is immediately depicted as ‘mentally ill’ or ‘unstable’. This type of reporting ignores any political motive and serves to advance a racist narrative. Within hours of the murders, Republican Lindsey Graham was trying to claim that this was an attack on the Christian faith, rather than on the black community, while others were maintaining that they had no idea what could have possibly compelled twenty-one year-old Roof to commit such an act.
Fortunately, largely thanks to the power of social media and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, the mainstream narrative has suddenly been forced to change. When the murderer openly admits that he wants to start a race war, it is difficult to present the attack as anything other than a racially motivated assault upon black people by an abhorrent but perfectly sane individual. The majority of mainstream media on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be in agreement that Roof’s crime cannot be explained away by a fabricated mental illness. There are exceptions. Fox News, unsurprisingly, is one. Another is the Wall Street Journal, whose editors inexplicably wrote: ‘what causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage . . . is a problem that defies explanation’. It isn’t. He was a racist, with access to lethal weaponry. That is abundantly clear.
What is also clear is that we are living through another civil rights movement in the United States. Its importance should not be underestimated. African-Americans remain marginalised and victimised throughout society, and huge, systemic change is needed to rectify this. Such change won’t come from the government without the application of immense pressure by civil society and protesters.
One of the first ways that white privilege could be addressed is by recognising that right-wing terrorism, almost exclusively committed by whites, is a far greater threat than Islamic fundamentalism. The New York Times reported that:
‘Since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years. In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. The toll has increased since the study was released in 2012’.
Ryan Cooper writes that, ‘those few Islamist plots – a great many of which were basically created wholesale by the FBI – are presented as justification for tremendous effort on the part of law enforcement and the military’. Meanwhile, the much greater threat posed to Americans by domestic terrorism is scarcely reported, because it doesn’t fit the racist, imperialist narrative of much of the media. If it was widely known that Americans are five times more likely to die at the hands of domestic terrorists than Islamist ones, would there be any support for continued American intervention in the Middle East?
A couple of final points. Dylan Roof should not face the death penalty. As reprehensible as his crime was, the death penalty is morally unjustifiable and should be abolished. This is also a clear indication that something must be done about guns in the United States; preferably a repeal of the Second Amendment, but realistically an alteration to it to prevent racists like Dylan Roof having such easy access to weapons that could be used to carry out similar massacres in the future.