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.
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.