Why the Language of Mass Murder Matters - Pacific Standard
Make no mistake: The Charleston shooting was an act of terrorism.

One evening, a gunman opens fire on parishioners gathered at a house of worship for an evening prayer session, his judgment handed down to unarmed victims in a hail of bullets. Details about the gunman begin to emerge over the next few hours. His online activity suggests an affiliation with a radical ideology with deep, violent roots in the region.

This is the story of Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old white man who police suspect murdered nine black worshippers—including a state senator and pastor—in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night. The photo that circulated online before his capture on Thursday afternoon shows a scowling Roof with a coat bearing the flags of the race-torn regimes of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Before opening fire, Roof reportedly told churchgoers: "You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go." Roof's intentions were allegedly even more sinister: His roommate told ABC News that Roof "said he wanted to start a civil war."

The repetition of this narrative has drilled a narrow trope of mass violence into our collective minds: Black murder is thuggery, brown murder is terrorism, and white murder is just crazy dysfunction that couldn't be avoided.

Despite the racism on display here, it’s unlikely you’ll hear Roof referred to as a terrorist by media outlets, as you would a member of the Islamic State or Boko Haram. (Though, as the Daily Beast's Dean Obeidallah points out, this case certainly meets the legal criteria.) This underscores a strange issue with how violence is talked about in America: We ascribe intent and circumstance based on skin color, racial background, and religious upbringing, rather than the act itself. White suspects are frequently described by the media as "mentally ill," a "loner," or a "brilliant" and "outstanding" young man with a bright future who somehow took a wrong turn. "Whether he was a terrorist and exactly how you define a terrorist, I don’t know," Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley told Time on Thursday. "I put him more in the [category] of the shooter of the children in Connecticut, the shooter in the movie theater—they’re deranged people."

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The words we use when discussing events like Charleston matter, as language shapes our perception of the root causes of violent acts, and determines the appropriate response. University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler makes this distinction beautifully in the Washington Post. "[African Americans and Muslim suspects] are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices," she writes. "While white suspects are lone wolfs ... violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion."

Perhaps this rhetorical softening of white terrorism is in part due to the recent history of white mass murder—which is usually presented through the framework of mental illness. Consider Aurora theater shooter James Holmes (who was still deemed sane enough to stand trial); or Newtown school shooter Adam Lanza, who had a history of behavior so dysfunctional his own father described him as "evil." And the repetition of this narrative has drilled a narrow trope of mass violence into our collective minds: Black murder is thuggery, brown murder is terrorism, and white murder is just crazy dysfunction that couldn't be avoided.

Calling atrocities like Roof's anything other than terrorism isn't just a matter of recognizing past and present injustices—it’s also a way to avoid actually doing anything to prevent future horrors.

But by not calling Roof’s atrocity terrorism, we gloss over the past—and present—of white America’s war of terror against its black citizens. Consider that in 1822 the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the site of Roof’s massacre, was burned to the ground, and its parishioners executed, after city officials uncovered founding member Denmark Vesey's plot for a slave revolt. And consider that, of the 32 suspicious fires set at black churches throughout the South during an arson wave of the 1990s, the majority were in South Carolina. Or that the Confederate Flag, a symbol of white supremacy, still flies over the state capitol in Columbia. Or that just two months ago, a South Carolina police officer gunned down unarmed black man Walter Scott in yet another police shooting, planting evidence on his body—an event that North Charleston residents told Reuters reflected an ongoing pattern of racial injustice in their communities. Hell, Vox's Dara Lind notes that "anti-black terrorism perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan was the reason for the first federal anti-terrorism law the U.S. ever passed."

Identifying atrocities like Roof's as anything other than terrorism isn't just a matter of recognizing past and present injustices—it’s also a way to avoid actually doing anything to prevent future horrors. Politicians go berserk over every instance of "terrorism" and throw billions at the Department of Defense. One lone weirdo who was at some point "troubled," but still "a really sweet kid," on the other hand, doesn’t require any sort of serious policy response. Just look at the state of gun control and mental health legislation in the wake of the Newtown massacre, or the vicious 2011 attack of Jared Lee Loughner, the Tucson gunman who shot Representative Gabby Giffords in the head. Parceling mass shootings perpetrated by white people into the category of lone exception, politicians can skirt discussions about potential policy solutions that could prevent future tragedies. In the case of some South Carolina lawmakers, that could mean walking away from a recent push to expand Second Amendment rights.

Racism did not evaporate with Martin Luther King Jr. It exists in the policies that have shaped housing laws and neighborhood composition for decades, and in the way television talking heads regard angry citizens protesting the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of white police officers. By making homegrown racial terrorists like Roof into exceptions, we prove the ugly rule: White Americans are different than black Americans, and that’s just the way it is.

The FBI has a very specific definition for terrorism: It involves "acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law," which appear "intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population," and "occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S." So while news anchors struggle to grasp why some white 20-something murdered nine innocent people in cold blood, let’s call Roof’s atrocity by it’s real name. Not doing so isn’t just an insult to his victims, but also to a country still grappling with a legacy of racial injustice.

Lead photo: Police tape outside of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo: Mike Ledford)

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