The killing of nine black people in a historic church is symptomatic of a deeper malaise that needs to be addressed
Last week, a 21-year-old white male walked into a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot dead nine people attending an evening Bible study.
The young man, Dylann Storm Roof, was caught not long after the incident. He confessed to the killings of the nine African-American in an act that the local police chief classified as “hate crime”.
But as it became clearer that Roof was a white supremacist who embraced a racist ideology – and who reportedly told his friends that he wanted to kill enough black people
to start a race war in America – many people are wondering why law enforcement officials were still sticking to
the same word and not calling the act what it is – domestic terrorism.
The NAACP, or the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, went further and called the Charleston massacre, “an act of racial terrorism”.
The target that Roof had chosen was historic and a symbol of the black community in America. The sanctity of the place should not be overlooked either.
As President Barack Obama said in his statement on Thursday, this was “more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.”
Like other terrorist targets, this one wasn’t personal. Roof didn’t need to have an issue with any of the victims to kill them.
Murdering the nine black churchgoers was a way of working towards his hideous socio-political goal – a race war that would purify America and cleanse it from the unwanted “others”.
He accused the blacks of raping “our women” and “taking over our country” and therefore “you have to go”.
His fashion statement also speaks for itself: He wore the flags of apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa.
Roof’s motivation aside, the killing placed a spotlight on what the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart called “gaping racial wound that will not heal, but we pretend doesn’t exist.”
Stewart added that he is convinced that “we still won’t do jack sh*t”, although America will do whatever it takes to fight the so-called War on Terror.
A number of commentators also wondered out loud if the label “terrorism” is reserved for violent crime committed by Muslims, pointing out the inconsistency in how the media reported on violent incidents, especially when it involved non-white people.
Needless to say, terrorism as a label risks becoming a racist insult if it continues to be used frivolously. In other words, if the basic criteria apply, then we should be not shy to call a spade a spade.
Imagine if the Charleston killing was carried out by a Muslim shouting “Allah hu Akbar” as he shot those people one by one, it would fit neatly with the current narrative that Muslims, in or outside the US, are prone to violence and cannot be trusted.
Counting the nine victims in the Charleston massacre, according to the New America Foundation, extremist right wing and anti-government racists have killed 48 people in the United States since September 11, 2001, while jihadist terrorist attacks in the US have claimed 26 lives during the same period.
Since 9/11, the US has found itself in two drawn out ground wars in the name of global war on terrorism. As a result, the debate on what constitutes terrorism has become a contested notion.
But along the way, this contested notion has conveniently linked Islam to terrorism. The country’s racial prejudices permit this kind of discourse.
But the use of violence as a political tool against civilian targets has been around long before 9/11.
If we believe that such a political tool does not adhere to any particular race or religion, then we must ask the question that can get to the root of this and other racially motivated violence.
Where and why did Roof learn to hate black people so much?
Or Americans could slide back to their comfortable position and dismiss him as a disturbed lone wolf, who is not a manifestation of current and past racism.