The question of race is an issue nearly as old America itself. And, as the world still looks to America for guidance through the most concerning issues of our time: ISIS, global migration and before that, the unrelenting spread of Ebola. It is America that must now look inward to reflect upon its own internal problems.
When Dylann Roof opened fire on a church of innocent people, the civilised world, after initial gasps and condemnations for the innocent lives lost, for the most part, quietly moved on as yet another blood red blot fell upon the copy book of America’s record of domestic security. Yet for some people a pertinent question remains unanswered: why was this racially motivated murder not unanimously labelled an act of terrorism?
Upon the face of it, Roof bore all the hallmarks of the publicsed Islamic terrorist. An American flag was set alight, a pre-rampage photo was taken with the weapons of his murderous act, and most fundamentally, Dylann Roof had the ‘political’ motivation – to take back his America from an unwelcome invader. Roof saw the South African Apartheid not as a fantasy, but a solution and an alternate governmental and societal model.
To look at varying definitions of terrorism, Roof fulfils the qualifying criteria for all of them – a desire to influence government and wider society by force of terror. MI5 defines it as the use of violence in order to advance a “political, religious, racial or ideological cause”. The FBI, under a separate definition for “domestic terrorism”, speaks of violence used to “affect the conduct of a government.” The United Nations speaks of terrorism a contravention of its own principles, notably “tolerance among peoples.” While Roof cannot have believed that his actions would instigate wholesale change in Charleston, he saw actions as meaningful and necessary, bringing his cause to the attention of the wider world.
Considering this, it is puzzling that Dylann Roof has not yet been classed in the same category as Seifeddine Rezgui, the murderer of 38 people in Sousse, or Yassin Salhi, who beheaded his boss and later attempted to blow up a chemical factory. Interestingly, Rezgui, unlike Roof, as gleefully been pointed out by western media, was a relatively educated individual, who, at least superficially, bought into many facets of modern western culture. Both, however, shared the same frustration that society had lost its “purity” despite undergoing radical social and political transformations. Rezgui was not satisfied with the society created by the Arab Spring, while Roof’s grievance date back as far as the days of slavery.
Recently attempts have been made to attack the traditional values Roof was ostensibly fighting for, notably the evocative symbol of an outdated society – the Confederate flag. The outcry in America was deafening, with even former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney weighing in and asking for its removal. Popular TV show the Dukes of Hazzard could not be saved from the national uproar. However, these actions miss the salient point. The Confederacy, no matter how ugly, is engrained in American history. It was the obstacle to liberal society that was overcome. Its past existence strengthens American society today, offering a stark reminder of what could have been. Moreover, removing flags does not strike at the heart of the problem. Certain streets are named after famous Confederate generals and American dollar notes bear the faces of those who at one time owned slaves, not to mention those in the South who speak proudly of this part of history. People’s attachment to it will not just fade away, not like this. Labelling Roof a terrorist would raise uncomfortable questions of how to actually eradicate the extreme and unwelcome values upheld by individuals such as Roof, questions that Americans would expect answers to.
Past cultural history aside, to elevate white supremacy to the table of terrorism would lay damning accusations of historic ignorance at the door of those responsible for keeping Americans safe. It would bring into the public eye the inertia of the authorities, who have been largely unsuccessful in combating the issue of right-wing extremism; seen by law enforcement agencies as of the greatest danger to American people. It is a brand of terrorism that has been responsible for much bloodshed, notably the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1993. Since 9/11, over the past 13 and a half years, studies have shown that there have only been 50 fatalities on American soil linked to Islamist groups, compared with 254 fatalities resulting from attacks linked to right-wing extremists. Despite the validity of labelling the Charleston shooting an act of terrorism, John D Cohen, former terrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, dismissed the importance of semantics, arguing instead that more important is to “understand it and stop it”. On the contrary, the ways official bodies label these events carries huge weight. In a CNN poll, 57% of all Americans and 61% of white Americans did not see Roof as a terrorist. Daryl Johnson, formerly of the same organisation of Cohen, argued that failing to define right-wing attacks as terrorism minimises their importance and can lead to their threat level being lowered. The report Johnson published in 2009 on right-wing terrorism was eventually withdrawn amidst consternation from conservative groups for highlighting the potential threat of returning veterans.
Helen Lewis of the New Statesman has suggested that part of the reason for this reluctance to term Roof a terrorist lies in the solution. As she says, there is a reassurance in painting Roof as crazed lone wolf. It allows people the comfort of believing nothing could have been done to prevent the attack, and to ignore the structural racism and intolerance within the United States. And while it is eminently clear that right-wing extremism need to be addressed, what it is not clear is whether the means or motivation exist for a meaningful effort against it. In the past, America has attempted to tackle international terrorism with haphazard military expeditions in the Middle East, as well as seismic reorganisations of its National Security apparatus at home. To many, harnessing such might to target Americans themselves, would be uncomfortable and uncharted territory. If the right-wing extremism of people like Roof was seriously credited as terrorism by those in authority, then there would be a similar expectation on the part of the authorities to match this will in trying to combat domestic terrorism. While most recognise the racial challenges still facing America today, few in positions of power are willing to go that extra step and call it as it is. It is for these reasons that Roof and many more to follow in his footsteps will have their acts of terrorism degraded and disregarded.
Hugh Coates is a recent graduate of Southampton University having studied History. He is particularly interested in American foreign affairs. His areas of specific knowledge include: covert operations and intelligence, particularly in the North African and Middle Eastern region.
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*Cover image ‘StandWithCharleston‘ by The All-Nite Images