In the wake of the murders of nine members of a church by a young white supremacist in Charleston, S.C., numerous commentators have questioned why the activities of groups and individuals like the Ku Klux Klan have not been classified as more than just hate crimes.
Why, some have asked, are such crimes not considered examples of domestic terrorism?
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who visited Birmingham last week in recognition of the city police department’s relatively successful community relations efforts – relative to places like Ferguson, Mo, for instance – made a reasoned and confident argument that Dylann Roof’s crime in Charleston is, in fact, terrorism.
“I have to say that the investigation into the events that occurred in Charleston, those tragic and heartbreaking events, is an ongoing investigation,” Lynch said. “On that issue what I would note is we are looking at all the facts and all the circumstances of that case to see, if in fact it becomes a federal case, which are the best statutes to use. Those statutes have many names but what I would note is that historically, frankly, hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism.
“And, in fact, hate crimes were designed and they were drafted to cover the acts of domestic terrorism that were perpetrated by hate groups such as the Klan going back to the late 1800s with the Klan Act. So I certainly think that I would have to disagree that we’ve never called those types of actions terrorism per se,” Lynch said. “I think they are classified as hate crimes because that is the impetus behind them. But make no mistake about it, hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism.”
Is it really terrorism?
Lynch’s assessment of the historical concept of domestic terrorism has not squelched calls to treat Roof and other white supremacists as more than just hate criminals.
“The Charleston police were quick to label what happened in the sanctuary of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last Wednesday night a ‘hate crime,’ wrote Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker June 29. “But it was not simply this. We should, for all the worst reasons, be adept by now at recognizing terrorism when we see it, and what happened in Charleston was nothing less than an act of terror.”
Cobb related how the Patriot Act defines domestic terrorism:
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be 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 (C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
“At a minimum, the murders were intended to intimidate and coerce the black civilian population of Charleston, and beyond,” Cobb wrote. “A friend of Roof’s said that he had talked about wanting to start a ‘race war’—something that Roof also reportedly confessed to investigators. And he apparently based his acts on vintage rationalizations for terrorist violence in American history.”
In the Washington Post, James Downie commented on the Charleston murders under the headline, “The Charleston shooter is a terrorist. The federal government should charge him as one.”
Downie pointed to a New York Times story about the Department of Justice’s decision to charge Roof with hate crimes under the federal statute, which the Times labeled “largely symbolic.” Then, Downie wrote, “if the department wanted to offer something more than an empty symbol, it would go further and charge Roof as what he is under the law: a terrorist.”
Downie’s argument is that the government has established a pattern – a racial one — in who it brands as a terrorist for the sake of criminal charges.
“Since Sept. 11, 2001, all too frequently we have seen a disturbing double standard in which non-white shooters or bombers are called terrorists, while their white counterparts are not,” Downie wrote. “Neither the white supremacist who killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin nor the anti-government radicals who killed two police officers in Las Vegas and left a note saying, ‘This is the start of the revolution’ were generally labeled terrorists. (The data show that white supremacist and other non-Muslim extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11 than jihadists.) But if Dylann Roof were Muslim, and had been accused of killing nine Christian Americans to start a ‘holy war,’ the Justice Department would have charged him as a terrorist in a second.”
What Dylann Roof did on June 17 reignited the debate over whether hate crimes are terrorism, too. But it was hardly the first time the question has arisen.
Years of debate
For instance, in April 2014, three people were killed at Jewish facilities in Kansas, prompting the host of KCUR’s Central Standard program to ask two professors, both from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the difference between a hate crime and terrorism.
Jessica Hodge, a criminal justice professor, said that “hate crimes were labeled in recent history with the first statutes originating in the 1980s and ‘90s,” according to the KCUR website. In Hodge’s mind hate crimes were an expanded view of civil rights violations – labeled by members of the media.
The other professor, Steve Dilks, said that “while there are a lot of similarities between hate crimes and acts of terrorism, the distinction comes in that acts of terror are planned attacks that are done to draw attention to some cause, rather than to inflict harm or suffering on a particular identity group.”
The professors drew the distinction that the designation “hate crime” is an additional charge that adds severity of punishment; is used to send a message to perpetrators, victims and other community members who share the identity; and is often spontaneous and fueled by drugs or alcohol.
They defined terrorism, on the other hand, as “orchestrated and often part of a series of events; often associated with formal organization or group;” and the kind of act that “may mobilize an entire response force” from an agency such as the FBI or the U.S. Army.
In view of Dilks’ and Hodge’s definitions, it might be noted that Roof’s actions were not spontaneous, but planned. Besides the fact that he showed up at a Bible study with a gun, there is also the evidence of an online manifesto which featured pictures of Roof with a Confederate flag, Nazi symbols and other indications of racist ideology, pointing to the conclusion that Roof gave more than a little thought to what he intended to do. “I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight,” the manifesto reads. “I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites [sic] in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet[sic]. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
It is also true that while Roof’ only managed to commit one act of violence — in the sense that he killed nine people at one time – and has no known direct membership in a group of like-minded white supremacists. But the connection is obvious, according to Cobb. “The fact that Roof appears to have acted without accomplices will inevitably be taken as solace,” he wrote. “He will be dismissed as a deranged loner, connected to nothing broader. This is untrue. Even if he acted by himself, he was not alone.”
Perhaps in an echo of Downie’s contention, since the shooting, supporters for Roof have come out from the community of white supremacists. As one example, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Aryan Nations leader Morris Gulett posted on his web site that, “I, for one, am very glad to see young people like Dylann Roof acting like men instead of the old 60’s era hippies stoned on weed and interracial love… We had better see much more of this type of activism if we ever expect to see our America return to it’s [sic] rightful place in the world and our children grow up in a clean safe healthy enviroment [sic].”
Not every scholar in criminology will agree that what Roof did was terrorism. An agreed upon definition is apparently hard to come by.
In the abstract for “Close Cousins or Distant Relatives? The Relationship Between Terrorism and Hate Crime,” on Sage Journals Online, Kathleen Deloughery of State University of New York, Albany, wrote that “terrorism is often an ‘upward crime,’ involving a perpetrator of lower social standing than the targeted group. By contrast, hate crimes are disproportionately ‘downward crimes,’ usually entailing perpetrators belonging to the majority or powerful group in society and minority group victims. The latter difference implies that hate crimes and terrorism are more akin to distant relatives than close cousins.”
Where, then, does that place Roof, a member of the white majority, who believes himself superior to blacks according to his manifesto, but who nevertheless sees himself as a victim of blacks who, in his words, “are taking over our country?”
It is worth noting that it’s not just in the U.S. that the term “terrorism” has proven hard to agree on. In a lengthy and detailed entry on the subject, Wikipedia notes that, “The definition of terrorism has proved controversial. Various legal systems and government agencies use different definitions of terrorism in their national legislation. Moreover, the international community has been slow to formulate a universally agreed, legally binding definition of this crime. These difficulties arise from the fact that the term “terrorism” is politically and emotionally charged.”
The Wikipedia article links to the book The Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research, in which editor Alex P. Schmid, director of the Terrorism Research Initiative acknowledges that “More than 70 years after the League of Nations first proposed (in 1937) a legal definition of terrorism, such an agreement is still elusive.”
In chapter one of his book Inside Terrorism, author Bruce Hoffman defines terrorism in ways that seem to both include and by some measure, exclude Roof. Terrorism, according to Hoffman, is:
*ineluctably political in aims and motive;
* violent — or, equally important, threatens violence;
* designed to have far-reaching psychological repercussions beyond the immediate victim or target;
* conducted by an organization with an identifiable chain of command or conspiratorial cell structure (whose members wear no uniform or identifying insignia); and
* perpetrated by a subnational group or non-state entity.
Lynch’s comment above seems to indicate that the government is still looking at precisely what to charge against Roof and whether the trial becomes a federal case. If it does, what would be the difference between calling him a hate criminal and calling him a domestic terrorist?
Both murder and terrorism carry stiff sentences. But according to Downie, the designation of a white supremacist as a “terrorist” and treating him in much the same way legally as the government does others so designated would send an important message, one that may reach beyond the specific penalties levied against Roof.
According to Downie, charging Roof with terrorism will help erase a double standard.
“Restricting the ‘terrorist’ label to those who don’t look like the majority of Americans has two effects: First, it feeds the media’s tendency to portray white extremists as “loners” and/or “mentally unstable,” a humanization rarely extended to non-white extremists,” Downie wrote. “Second, it distorts the debate over anti-terrorism laws, as many Americans are more likely to give the government constitutionally questionable powers if they believe that they will be used only against people who don’t look like them. Charging Roof as a terrorist would strike a blow against these twin mistakes.”