On July 16th, a 24 year old man attacked 2 military sites in Tennessee with a gun, killing 4 people before dying himself. A month earlier, on June 17th, a 21 year old man shot 9 worshippers at an historic Black church in South Carolina, and fled the scene before being arrested the next day. According to media reports, both perpetrators are young men who have had trouble finding a productive direction for their lives and may have had substance use problems. And in both cases their visible social circles did not expect or support their turn to violence. In addition, these young men reportedly come from families that do not share their political or religious beliefs; Mohammod Abdulazeez’s family has assimilated to American society while maintaining Muslim practices, and Dylann Roof’s parents and grandparents live comfortably in racially diverse contexts.
Despite the personal similarities, these two instances of lethal violence have been characterized in the media and national discourse in very different ways. The language of terrorism and search for ties to Muslim movements in the Middle East has come into play immediately in the Abdulazeez case, although (as of this writing) it is still unclear how this will unfold. In contrast, the language of “hate” quickly dominated in regard to Roof, in the context of growing evidence of connections to White supremacist organizations.
In legal terms, both ‘terrorism’ and ‘hate crime’ are additions to existing charges, and bring enhanced penalties in the event of conviction. In cultural terms, these are two very different frameworks for motivation, particularly in regard to political context for action.
Setting aside legal technicalities, hatred is an emotion while terrorism is intrinsically a political act. Hatred may be a motivation for action, including actions classifiable as terrorism, but the language of emotion focuses our attention on the individual and his/her inner life. In regard to Dylann Roof’s assault on the Emmanuel AME church, the language of ‘hatred’ certainly reflects the emotions many Americans associate with the racist symbols Roof used, but it deflects attention away from the profoundly political structure of White violence against African Americans throughout U.S. history.
The FBI defines terrorism as violent or dangerous acts that appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, or to influence policy and/or conduct of government. It is still unclear what motivated the assault on two military sites, but a solo young man armed with a gun has little ability to influence government to act according to his beliefs. The assassination of nine worshippers at an historically significant Black church on a day with particular resonance for that church has a much greater potential to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population,” regardless of whether or not Roof was acting at the direction of established White supremacist organizations. His actions exist in an historical continuum of White violence against Black communities – with both the motivation and consequence of intimidation, marginalization, and coercion of various kinds. The rash of arsons at Black churches in the weeks that followed provides a concrete reminder of the ways that individual actions embody collective processes, regardless of whether the individuals involved coordinate their actions.
The category of ‘terrorism’ has expanded and been used in profoundly problematic ways over the past 20 years, with camping trips redefined as jihadi training and pervasive surveillance of ordinary life in Muslim communities. However, we need to carefully scrutinize how use of the word ‘hatred’ can obscure political violence. The systematic assaults on African American communities now and in the past may or may not reflect personal hatred, but they have unambiguously political motivations as well as consequences. The language of hatred obscures political and historical context by directing attention to the personal situation and emotions of specific perpetrators, a process that individualizes actions that follow clear systemic patterns. Dylann Roof’s online manifesto and website provide more evidence of political beliefs, however repulsive, than of personal animosity.
In my recent research report “Terror Network or Lone Wolf”in The Public Eye magazine, I argue that the “lone wolf” label obscures substantial evidence of movement affiliations among the vast majority of right-wing terrorists who act alone or with one other person:
“Research has shown that, at the time they engage in political violence, the majority of so-called lone wolves are over 30 years old, and have had significant histories of participation in Hard Right movements.”
While Roof is younger and less experienced than this profile would predict, his writing, photographs, and even his words in the church before the shooting place him solidly inside an extended lineage of White racist violence which includes lynchings, the KKK, and countless assaults on Black churches and ministers. Roof told the worshippers at Emmanuel AME church that one of the reasons he was going to shoot them was because Black men rape White women, an accusation with a horrifying history in relation to lynching. The recent film Selma depicts the horrific 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed 4 young girls, providing a visceral reminder of the use of assaults on Black churches as a tactic to instill fear in Black activists and communities.
“Terrorism” may or may not prove to be a useful framework or label for the actions of Dylann Roof and other violent White supremacists, but “hatred” is clearly inadequate as an explanation for recurrent patterns of action that span decades, if not centuries. We should also question whether “terrorism” is the most useful or accurate label for the actions of a young Muslim with a complicated family history and well-documented substance abuse and mental health issues.