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Why It Matters Whether the Charleston Attack Was Terrorism

June 22, 2015

As a professor of international relations, I often have to radically adjust my syllabi from semester to semester. International politics changes so frequently that last year’s hot button issue is often no longer relevant the next time I teach a class. I offer my course on Terrorism every other year and it’s on the agenda for this coming fall. The last time I taught this class was Spring 2014. ISIS had just emerged on to the scene (the closest thing to a formal announcement of ISIS’s existence was April 2013, and only announced the establishment of the caliphate in July 2014, after the class had concluded) and the split between al Qaeda and ISIS occurred during the semester. So, one of the things I’m doing this summer is preparing my syllabus and refocusing it to deal more with ISIS. However, last week’s tragic and disgusting massacre in Charleston has given me something else to incorporate into the class. I already spend a day on domestic terrorism, but given all the reporting on whether Dylann Roof’s heinous act should be considered terrorism, I’m probably going to work that question directly into the class.

There’s been enough written about whether the attack should be classified as terrorism. I tend to think it should–it’s clear that Roof was not simply trying to kill a select group of people but rather send a message (he left one person alive to ensure his “message” would get out) in an attempt to create political change. To me and many others, that’s terrorism. But I’m more interested in why it matters what we call it. Nine people’s lives have been horrifically cut short, so why should  we dicker over terminology?

It matters because different rules apply to terrorism than “regular” criminal activity and the authorities have different powers at their disposal to deal with terrorism.  But more importantly to my mind it matters because “regular” criminal activity and terrorism are, in their essences, fundamentally different kinds of crimes. “Regular” crime is limited in scope and intent; it generally is an effort by an individual or small group of individuals to personally enrich themselves. While it might be very dangerous and even deadly, we recognize that its impact is generally confided to the perpetrators and the victims, limiting its impact. This is why, at least in the US, we have such strong protections for those accused of crimes (e.g. the strong evidentiary exclusionary laws that emerge from the 4th amendment): we tend to see the danger of an overzealous, anti-crime government as larger than the threat posed by any specific criminal.

But when the scope of criminal activity begins to move beyond the specific victims, we begin to sense that those protections might no longer make sense. Even when “regular” criminal activity grows in scope, the laws begin to adjust to compensate (think the federal RICO laws to deal with the problem of organized crime).

Nearly every definition of terrorism posits that terrorism is a crime designed not for personal enrichment but to produce political change. The victims are often, if not usually, symbolic and incidental to the political act which is aimed at a larger target (i,e. a country’s government or broader voting public). Terrorism threatens to undo the fabric and essence of society by sufficiently threatening the general public so as to cause the government to change course and alter policy.

Roof’s manifesto cites a desire to inspire others to follow in his footsteps. He expresses frustration at people talking about “the problem” but not taking action, and claims to have chosen Charleston as his target because “it is [the] most historic city in my state” that “at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites [sic] in the country.” He laments the absence of skinheads and the Ku Klax Klan and claims that it falls to him to “take it to the real world.”

And this is why it is necessary to argue about whether the massacre in the Charleston AME Church is an act of terrorism. It should come as no surprise that there is a large network of white supremacists operating in the US today. The first amendment, of course, protects the rights of an individual to espouse white supremacist ideology, racial pseudo-science, and hatred. But if Roof’s action was indeed intended to inspire others to follow in his footsteps, or was (and as far as I know there is no evidence of this)  part of a larger planned campaign, then it is important to understand the action for what it is and treat it accordingly.

The murder of 9 people studying the Bible at their church is horrific regardless of the intent behind it. But Roof’s action seems intended to terrify other African-Americans, to get them to fear the society in which they live. It seems designed to get whites to reject the idea of the US as a “melting pot” (a phrase which Roof disparages in his manifesto). This is why we must reconceptualize organized campaigns of violence against blacks, Muslims, Jews, and any other racial, ethnic, or religious minority as terrorism. It seems unlikely that political violence could lead the government to change its policies towards America’s non-white, non-Christian populations, but it could change the attitudes of those peoples towards the government and the larger society. As we see in collapsing and failed states, when a government loses its legitimacy and ceases to adequately protect its population, chaos ensues. We recently saw in Baltimore what happens when people lose faith in their government. If Roof and other white supremacists have this as their goal, then they are indeed terrorists and must be treated as such.

UPDATE: At the very least, the definition matters because officers don’t typically buy fast food for suspected terrorists in their custody.

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Seth Weinberger is Associate Professor of Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound. He received his B.A. (1993) in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, an M.A. (1995) in Security Studies from Georgetown University, and an M.A. (2000) and Ph.D. (2005) in political science from Duke University. He teaches courses on international relations, U.S. foreign policy, international security, terrorism, constitutional law, and political philosophy. His book, Restoring the Balance: War Powers in an Age of Terror was published by Praeger Press in 2009. His recently published articles include “Enemies Among Us: The Targeted Killing of American Members of al Qaeda and the Need for Congressional Leadership” in the Georgetown Global Security Studies Review (Spring 2013) and “Institutional Signals: The Political Dimension of International Competition Law Harmonization” (with Geoffrey A. Manne) in The Anti-Trust Bulletin (57, no. 3). His current research focuses on congressional-executive war powers in the on-going armed conflict against al Qaeda. In 2011, Professor Weinberger received the Thomas A. Davis Teaching Excellence Award.