The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Charleston shooter is a terrorist. The federal government should charge him as one.

Dylann Roof appears via video before a judge, in Charleston, S.C., on June 19. (Centralized Bond Hearing Court via Associated Press)

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that “the Justice Department will probably file federal hate crime charges” against Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white male accused of killing nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., last week. As the Times notes, the DOJ’s act is “largely symbolic.” But 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.

Generally speaking, there are two reasons for hate crime charges: to increase the severity of the punishment the accused faces and/or to facilitate a federal prosecution of someone who has been acquitted at the state level. Neither rationale applies here: Roof faces nine counts of murder, for which he’ll almost certainly face the death penalty, and (in addition to mountains of evidence) law enforcement officials said he has confessed to the killings, making an acquittal almost impossible.

That leaves only one reason for the Justice Department to charge Roof: It wants to send the message that it considers the killings a hate crime. That’s fine, as far as it goes: The Charleston shooting certainly fits the definition of a hate crime. But it also fits the FBI’s definition of terrorism: “the unlawful use of force or 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.” Roof has said he murdered nine people with the goal of starting a “race war” — an overtly political act of intimidation. And unlike most hate crimes, which are essentially spontaneous — a group of bored teenagers looking for gay people to harass, for example — Roof allegedly planned his killing spree. In short, Dylann Roof’s alleged actions are much less similar to a drunk college student’s assault of a black man than to the Boston bombing.

And if the Justice Department’s goal is symbolism, terrorism charges would be a much more powerful message. At one time, white supremacists were routinely treated as domestic terrorists — the Enforcement Acts, passed in 1870 and 1871, targeted the Ku Klux Klan and its campaigns of intimidation against newly freed blacks and their allies. But 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. 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.

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. 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.

There are those who argue that charging Roof as a terrorist would be worse than “retiring the word altogether,” because its definition is already too expansive. But the easiest way to neutralize the downsides of the “terrorist” label is to apply it to a young man who (jacket with racist patches aside) most Americans could see being neighbors with. “Terrorist” has been applied to a wide variety of groups for decades; to somehow take that word out of circulation now is impossible. It’s better for the Justice Department to remind us that terrorists are not some scary “foreign”-looking types, but, like other criminals, come from all backgrounds.

To be fair, the FBI has not explicitly ruled out charging Roof with terrorism. But FBI director James Comey certainly sounded skeptical at his press conference on Saturday, where he said, “Terrorism is act of violence done or threatened to in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry. So it’s more of a political act. And again, based on what I know so more I don’t see it as a political act.” One hopes that Comey, the Bureau and the Justice Department will reverse course and take the stronger stand.