Why We Must Call The Charleston Shooting Terror

The story that we tell is the life that we live.  Each word is a critical building block in what we come to regard as truth, a truth so massive and all encompassing that we have a hard time imaging the giants hands that build these cities of words.  But we build them.  We tell the story of America every day in a million voices, some soft, passed from mouth to ear while others squawk at us for hours across the airwaves.  The loudest voice tell us what we believe, what we saw.  The tell us what to know–with or without the facts.  So it matters if we call the Charleston Church massacre terrorism–or not.  Here’s why we should.


What we know is that on the evening of June 17th in one of the most historically significant black churches in Charleston, South Carolina, a room full of people came together in peaceful worship and prayer, welcoming into their midst without a second thought one who would, moments later, shoot nine people in cold blood.  What we know is that the killer intentionally and with great malice and forethought chose to kill those people because they were black.  What we know is he has made this clear with a manifesto of deep racial hate fed by the crop of white supremacy that is marked by segregation, feeds “bad” cops and grows inequality in all of our systems.  Fact: this is an act motivated and expressing hate of black people, intended to inflict fear and terror.

Have no doubt that what happened in Charleston is an act of terrorism.  According to who?  How about the US department of defense:

 The calculated use of unlawful violence or threat of unlawful violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.

Or perhaps you prefer the FBI’s definition:

Terrorism is the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Still don’t believe me?  Well neither did the FBI–they have yet to declare the attack terror, though the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into what they term a terror attack.  It’s not just these agencies that disagree.  In fact, there is ample debate in the mainstream media about what to call this act–hate crime?  terrorism?  Rising above the debate and cries of mourning–is the steady drumbeat of apologists:  he was a quite boy.  he was a good boy. this is a lone wolf.   Don’t make this about race.  Define racist.  Define hate.  Define humanity–and then we’ll decide if he violated yours.


Now it the time to push for crimes against black bodies rooted in racist ideology to be called terrorism.  Far from purely academic, calling the Charleston shooting terrorism recognizes that this attack is one of a larger battle–one we are loathe to admit exists–against the ideology of white supremacy.   A war on terror requires us to root out the very ideology at play–in this case the white supremacy that has been fueling violence across our country since its birth.  Calling it terrorism requires us to use time, and money and human capital to cut off the legs of supremacist groups to stop them from spreading a net of propaganda to lure in the hateful and the violent.

Calling it terror means we won’t stop at prosecuting Roof, but we’ll also go after the organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens who helped radicalize him.  We will be able to use the considerable resources of the FBI and the department of Homeland security to go after white supremacist radicalized hate as stridently as we go after radicalized islamic hate groups.

Calling it terrorism would keep presidential candidates from taking money from hate groups to assure political support free from the eyes of their constituency.  This war on terror could cut off funding streams that fuel hate groups and their supporters. I’m looking at you  Rick, Ted and Rand…and Mitt, in case you return.

Hate group campaign donation recipient Rick Santorum sitting next to activist DeRay McKesson. No,Rick, this does not absolve you.

Calling it terror will make clear to all Americans that a black man shot by a white man over ideology will receive the same justice as a white man killed by a muslim over ideology.  Calling the Charleston massacre terror won’t politicize it–it will depoliticize our one-note approach to terror so we can finally begin to attack it.  Assuming that all terror is committed by radicalized muslim extremists ignores that most victims of ideologically motivated hate crimes are victims of racial hate. And Blacks are more likely to be the victims of a hate crime than any other racial group.

Calling it terror requires us to remove the ideological roots of the hate–like  recent calls for removing the rebel battle flag flying by law over the South Carolina state capital and removing it from official government items like the Texas license plate.  Before we celebrate these most recent victories, the SCOTUS decision was 5-4 and the flag will only come down after 9 (more) deaths and (another round of) protest. We’ll have to be vigilant about being honest with the remains of racism that still permeate the symbolic life of America.

Roof’s manifesto–available on the internet in case any investigators had been tracking him–reveals a deep complex narrative of hatred for blacks, not one created by Roof alone, but one that is the heart of white supremacist ideology for hundreds of years.  Have no doubt these statements are weaving the same old story that has sanctioned violence against blacks in this country since the days of the lash–a continuous story that says blacks are not human, that violence is required by those policing whiteness to keep black bodies in check.  Refusing to call the attack terror and searching for mitigating factors to excuse the killer’s evil intent are salt in an already painful open wound.  This resistance to recognizing and acknowledging this incident as terror is an indicator of white supremacy’s chilling effect on racial dialogue.

The fight against terrorism is a multibillion dollar effort in the United States and around the world waged with American tax dollars.   But terror lives among us, too.  If you believe black lives matter, if you want to live in a world where we can all truly be human, then it’s time to strap on your helmet and turn our resources and our minds to the terror at home. To acknowledge the violence perpetrated against a select group of humans doesn’t take away from our humanity–it ensures it.  It ensures that we see where inequality exists so we can cut out the disease and begin to heal.

Author: Susan X Jane

Susan X Jane is a diversity educator, speaker, and trainer and coach. A former professor and media literacy activist, she now consults with organizations looking to make sense of our current cultural shift. She thinks a lot about media and race…a lot...and writes and speaks about media…and race... and encourages everyone she meets to think about the way our identity shapes our experiences, ideas, and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

13 thoughts on “Why We Must Call The Charleston Shooting Terror”

  1. Two snaps. I’m in the progress of writing my post for today and this is what I’m gathering my words to talk about, because this is terrorism.

    1. Sure you’re right. Imagine if we soent a fraction of the money ee dpent in Iraq dismantlingsustems of racism andbuilding a truly equitable society. Looking forward to your piece!

  2. Ugh. Look, folks.. does it truly matter if it’s called terrorism, cold-blooded murder, or some nutcase gone wild? The point here is that nine human beings were killed in their place of worship by an obvious emotionally unstable 21 year old. The bottom line is that race is irrelevent as these are first human beings, yet those that want to point out the racist remarks the killer made as he pulled the trigger somehow mean something toward differentiating white from black. I am hearing that racism is not dead in America simply because “we” elected a black president. Sorry, I am just an old white guy who is a bit tired of having to feel guilty for white racist nutcases and bad cops.. and having to yet again be told by the parade of black pundits parading across my TV screen that “See, white America, racism isn’t dead!” I don’t recall in my lifetime that racism was ever declared dead. Now.. if black Americans are uncomfortable with what seems to be some level of white complacency toward the black struggle for civil rights, maybe we should understand just what might have caused such complacency. Could it be that white Americans, since the days of MLK, have passed into more of a level of universal brotherhood toward black Americans? I’ve only been around 64 years and in that time I have seen some terrible civil rights injustices… and nothing from those days compares to now. Yet as a white guy I’m being reminded all the time that racism is not dead. Just what could I have done to have kept those nine people from being killed? Now we’re talking about flying Confederate flags and using the “N” word. Ok.. I get it. All bad symbols of black racist oppression. And this has what relavance to nine human beings being killed in their place of worship? Are you suggesting that this young killer could have spent his years of unstable emotional psychotic behavior without being influenced by racist thoughts or deeds? That perhaps he could have killed a group that had a more racial demographic and yelled out as he was pulling the trigger, “I hate the IRS!” ?

    Nine human beings were killed in their place of worship because some mentally ill kid didn’t like their skin color. In Sandy Hook 20 children and seven adults were killed, and they still don’t know the motive, although it doesn’t take a genius to speculate he just wanted to kill kids to prove something to the world. Then there’s the students in Columbine, the gunman in the movie theater. The list is seemingly endless just as are the reasons and motivations. The common denominator? Mental illness, and our social inability to address firearms.

    Sorry for the bit of a rant but why should I be made to feel “whitely” uncomfortable? Me and my ancestors never owned slaves or oppressed anyone.

    1. Race is clearly not irrelevant here, as detailed in Roof’s manifesto. Would you have supported calling Bin Laden just an obviously emotionally unstable guy and chalking it up to some craziness? Ignoring the root of politicized violence creates opportunities for it to happen again. The point of actors like roof is to draw attention and activate others in his cause. You should feel angry about racist nut cases and killer cops because they are killing your fellow citizens. The parade of black pundits will repeat the message until America is willing to look at the many peices of evidence that support their claim that racism is alive an well. White complacency is caused by underlying bias and a willingness to ignore the continued inequity in our country despite the gains of civil rights. You may be suprised to know that more blacks are under state supervision now than during slavery, that there are nearly 200,000 hate crimes against blacks every year, and that present day white americans still benefit from the systems of privilege set up after the end of slavery. That’s why we can’t be silent about it. As someone that touts the importance of humanity, I am sure you too want to ensure every Americans basic civil rights. What you can do to keep the next 9 people from being killed is to participate locally in actions that ensure our laws and beleifs are enforced–be informed, believe the facts, and learn what it means to be a white ally. We all are influenced by racist thoughts and ideas in the culture around us. We have to each take responsibility to not ignore what is written in blood in our streets. If the killer had shot the IRS, security policies would work to prevent a further attack, just like after the shoe bomber. What I am suggesting that we apply the same justice principles written in our laws in this case. Not all mentally ill firearms owners kill people, so there is another factor–one the killer detailed very carefully to make sure all of us–including you–can not ignore that this is racism, hate fueled ideologically motivated terrorism. I appreciate you taking the time to deatail your frustration in a way that would allow me to hopefully shed some light. Racism is happening now–don’t ignore it like slave holders, and jim crow vigilantes, and state troopers at Selma, and LAPD, and hate groups have for hundreds of years. Don’t get uncomfortable–imagine how uncomfortable Rev Pinkney’s family, combating racism for hundreds of years, is today as they prepare to bury him–get active.

    2. Hi Doug – here are two articles that should be an eye-opener to every white person who sincerely thinks they are non-racist and non-involved in white privilege: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/11-ways-white-america-avoids-taking-responsibility-its-racism and this one: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/ After you are done reading both articles, you may want to re-visit your comment here and see what (if anything) has changed in your views.

    3. Hi Doug – here are two articles that should be an eye-opener to every white person who sincerely thinks they are non-racist and non-involved in white privilege: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/11-ways-white-america-avoids-taking-responsibility-its-racism and this one: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/white-fragility-why-its-so-hard-to-talk-to-white-people-about-racism-twlm/ After you are done reading both articles, you may want to re-visit your comment here and see what (if anything) has changed in your views.

  3. Lol at complaining about white supremacy when 99% of whites and a huge percentage of non-whites will never, ever, ever give up their white privilege or even consider living in the same home with a non-white. Legitimately a nation of liars.

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