What is the difference between a terrorist and a politically-motivated lone wolf? Or a terrorist and a psychotic mass-murderer? Or a terrorist and an extremist serial bomber? What made us label the Charlie Hebdo attacks terrorism that Dylann Roof’s racist massacre lacked? The only distinctions are skin color and religion.
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as an act that must:
- Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
- Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
- Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
For more than two decades, terrorism has been characterized as a solely Muslim exploit. This started in the early ‘90s, following a series of attacks and bombings in the name of Islam. It even got to the point where, when a bomb went off at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, the media immediately assumed the perpetrators were Muslim.
One reporter on BBC America’s Newsnight said that the bombing “bears the hallmark […] of Islamic extremists.” It later turned out that two white men, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, had perpetrated the attacks to further their extreme right-wing ideology. But by assuming Muslims bombed the building in 1995, the media revealed society’s thoughts on such attacks: that respectable white Americans couldn’t possibly be responsible for this—but Arab Muslims could.
This idea ignores the glaring reality that most US terror attacks are perpetrated by right-wing groups. A 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security found that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.” Overall, 56 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plans since 1995 were organized by the extreme right. And a new DHS report released earlier this year says that this terror threat from the violent right is just as pressing as it was six year ago.
Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodgers, Timothy McVeigh, Jerad Miller and the whole violent white right are the true face of American terrorism.
Why then, despite the facts, are Muslims characterized as our greatest enemy, and white terrorists let off the hook? Not the Confederate-Flag-waving sort, but the systemic and internalized kind. The racism that asserts that white people could not possibly sink to such lows. The racism that prompts media and society to argue that the fundamental difference between a regular white guy and an ISIS fighter is one of religion, as if being Muslim is an inherently violent trait.
Of course it is more complex than that, and indeed cannot be taken apart in a single article. What’s important is that we recognize that we live in a society that dehumanizes Muslim people and defines them as terrorists, or fetishizes them as mysterious and exotic, or simply labels them “collateral damage.” This is something we have all internalized, and often unknowingly contribute to. In the end, it leads directly to the racist brutality of the War on Terror abroad, when the war we should really be fighting is right here at home.
Racist and anti-government terrorism is a proud American tradition, immortalized in the celebration of the tarring-and-feathering of British tax officials, our college’s genocidal mascot and the Confederate Flag that flew at full mast above the South Carolina Statehouse. The Charleston Church shooting was simply one more attack in line with more than 250 years of white terrorism.
It is essential that we recognize it as such. It matters that Roof be labelled a terrorist instead of a mentally-ill lone wolf. The latter isolates the attacker from being analyzed in a greater context. It depoliticizes him, makes him just a bad apple and conveniently ignores the long line of bad apples preceding him.
Saying Roof’s actions reflected only his own mental state prevents us from critiquing the systemic racism that encouraged him. It’s also blatantly unfair to argue that the actions of a Muslim terrorist reflect on all of Islam, but those of a right-wing terrorist are solely his own. Roof’s actions shouldn’t reflect on the right; rather they should be seen as representing an American culture of racism and violence.
Like any terrorist attack, the Charleston Shooting should provoke a conversation about the conditions that foster extremism. Such environments aren’t unique to war-torn Syria, but exist right here . Mental health support programs are being dismantled across the country. Access to guns is being consistently expanded – in some states it is now easier to buy an assault weapon than to vote. Systemic racism infects education, justice, politics, and every other aspect of our society. Americans still openly support symbols of slavery and genocide. A man says that most Mexicans are rapists and he garners support from 17.7 percent of the Republican voter base.
And the violent white right grows ever larger, disseminating its hateful ideology to a susceptible and heavily-armed population. If we don’t combat these root causes, if we don’t declare war on domestic terrorism, there will be more attacks, more shootings, more deaths. America has been producing terrorists for 250 years—maybe it’s time we try to quit.