The question of whether or not the Charleston shooting was an act of terrorism is an intriguing one.  Typically, we think of terrorism as it relates to clear terrorist attacks perpetrated by known terrorist groups like al Qaeda:  9/11, the Boston bombing, and the Fort Hood terrorist attack.  Or we think of it as it relates to nationalist groups who have engaged in violent acts against civilians such as the IRA, PLO, or FALN.

When mass violent acts occur on our own soil by our own citizens—those unaffiliated with accepted terrorist groups, we don’t tend to label them terrorism.  I’m thinking here of school shootings, abortion bombings, movie theater shootings, and the like.  Only when homegrown terrorists engage in acts against the government do most of us agree that it’s terrorism (I’m thinking here of Timothy McVeigh and the Weather Underground).

So why are we now considering whether or not the Charleston shooter was a terrorist?  If we don’t think of the Sandy Hook shooter as a terrorist, why would we think of this shooter as a terrorist?  Does it become terrorism because of the race of the shooter and his victims?  That seems to be the argument.

From The New York Times:

Assaults like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the attack on an anti-Islamic gathering in Garland, Tex., last month have been widely portrayed as acts of terrorism carried out by Islamic extremists. Critics say, however, that assaults against African-Americans and Muslim Americans are rarely if ever called terrorism.

Moreover, they argue, assailants who are white are far less likely to be described by the authorities as terrorists.

From The Washington Post:

U.S. media outlets practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans or Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs (if not always explicitly using the terms), motivated purely by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolves — Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley has emphasized that this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie, which was “as much responsible for [his] death as George Zimmerman,” Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera concluded. Michael Brown stole cigars, and Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes — “epically bad decisions” that New York Post columnist Bob McManus, and many others, used to somehow justify their deaths. And when Dajerria Becton, a black teenager who committed no crime, was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “no saint either.”

According to this line of reasoning, it’s only fair to treat this particular shooter as a terrorist because he’s white and his victims were black.  Anything less is racist.

Defining terrorism based on the race of the perpetrator and of the victims is problematic at best and threatens to make “hate crime” the equivalent of terrorism.

Then again, perhaps it’s not as dire as that, given that “terrorism” is a mis- and over-used word and has been applied to the TEA Party, Republicans in Congress, and supporters of Cliven Bundy.

The New York Times article linked above cites, and I’m not making this up, Webster’s New World College Dictionary’s definition of terrorism:  “the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy.”   Considering that this can be applied to a verbally abusive spouse, we (and the NYT) should probably seek more authoritative sources.

According to a 2009 DHS memo, potential “rightwing terrorists” include:

. . . not just racist or hate groups, but also groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.

“It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration,” the warning says.

Considering that “groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority” are those who support the 10th Amendment, this seems a rather extreme and dangerous definition.  Lumping pro-life and anti-amnesty Americans in with terrorists is objectionable . . . to say the least.

The FBI defines terrorism as “The unlawful use of force and 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,” and apparently based on this definition, the FBI director stated that the Charleston shooting was not terrorism.


Comey states that under the law, terrorism is “more of a political act” and that based on what he knows so far of the Charleston shooter, the shooting was not an act of terrorism.

Maybe not, but according to the shooter’s “manifesto,” he acted with the intent of starting a race war.  Echoes of Charles Manson aside, does this intent—and not solely his or his victims’ race—make his actions an act of terrorism because it was in pursuit of a social objective?  I lean toward “no” because this was not an act of coercion; he wasn’t trying to force his ideology onto the government or people, he was trying to ignite a race war by one desperate, evil act.

But what say you?


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