The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why we shouldn’t call Dylann Roof a terrorist

A 21-year-old white man accused of murdering nine people in a historic black South Carolina church makes his first court appearance. (Video: Reuters)

We'll start by conceding the obvious: Dylann Roof is a racist and law enforcement officials say he is an admitted murderer. He has reportedly gone out of his way to make sure we know why he did what he did on Wednesday, to know that he wanted to prove the superiority of the white race over those immoral others. So he showed up at a church, took advantage of the trust of an unarmed group of black people who were seeking to better themselves in a place they felt safe, and murdered nine of them, one of them 87 years old.

Over the last 36 hours, the inevitable debate over his actions has not been about access to firearms, as it has been so many times before. Instead, the conversation has often focused on how we refer to Roof's actions and even on the appropriateness of the Confederate flag. In part, this is due to the overlap of this act with the ongoing, roiling debate over race in America. In part, you might suspect, it's because we've reached the Battle of the Somme stage of the gun control war -- two sides raging at each other ferociously and futilely. And in part it's because a terroristic act, which this was, is treated and identified differently when the actor is a young white man.

There are no shortage of essays arguing that last point. Here at the Washington Post, Anthea Butler pointed out the disparity between how we -- the media, society -- refer to a Dylann Roof versus, say, the people who attacked the Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas. In each case, someone hoping to prove a political point attacked a gathering because of who was in attendance. In the case where the only deaths were the attackers, we call it terrorism. In the case where the only deaths were the innocent people, we debate it.

Among those debating this even as we speak is the Justice Department, which released a statement Friday saying it is looking at what happened in Charleston "from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism."

But we shouldn't call Dylann Roof a terrorist.

A large part of this is punitive. Roof wants to be a terrorist -- for us to admit that he terrorized us. He likes the attention, telling the police as he admitted to his acts that he wanted to make sure they were "known." Compare his frowning, maybe-teary booking photo with the smug half-smile he showed when the person behind the camera was connected to media outlets, not a police force. Those are the two sides of Dylann Roof, and we're much better served encouraging the former than the latter. What if we just call him a racist, grotesque person. What if we laughed at him instead of telling him he scared us? What if we throw him into prison for the rest of his life and forget about him and his desperate jacket and his desperate license plate and his desperate, terrible life?

It's not that simple, of course, because "terrorism" carries legal weight that "murder" doesn't. When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in Boston in 2013, the debate was over how to treat him given that he was a terror suspect -- as manifested by Sen. Lindsey Graham -- not over whether or not he was a terror suspect. That's part of why Tsarnaev and the Texas cartoon attackers were so quickly identified as terrorists.

Part of this reflects the same racial chasm that Roof wanted to exacerbate. Most Americans are white, and we see white people like ourselves. When I see Dylann Roof, I remember being a white male his age, barely out of my teenage years and experiencing weird anger in a difficult time. (There's a reason that young men commit most murders.) We can identify much more easily with who he is. When Graham looks at Roof, he doesn't see a terrorist with a weird name and foreign ties. He sees a kid who was in his niece's English class -- literally.

In part, too, we can blame the war on terror, which is, in essence, a war on certain groups of Middle Easterners and Muslims. We are at war with terror, and that war fits largely within the boundaries of the countries of Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan, although it also has branch offices in Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula. When the United States hits a target with a drone-launched missile, it has often been because it and the people there fit a particular description or pattern of behavior -- not necessarily because they are known terrorists. Calling more non-American people terrorists also serves to bolster the arguments of those calling for more military intervention.

The problem, in other words, isn't that we're too slow to call Roof a terrorist. It's that we're often too quick to call everyone else a terrorist.

Roof appropriated America's oldest, most virulent strain of hatred in order to do what he did. He cobbled together a non-unique racist philosophy which has been used as an excuse for violence against black people for centuries. His ability to develop his own rationale for his behavior was no stronger than his ability to get his own gun.

To the extent that labeling his actions as racial terrorism helps America come to terms with the fact that the ideology he assumed is dangerous and urgent, fine. And to the extent that labeling his actions as legal terrorism results in a stiffer punishment, also fine. But each of these is predicated on our insistence that terrorism is somehow a higher order of evil than simply murdering elderly people for being black even as they held their Bibles in a church. It implies that his mass murder was one thing, but that his scaring us was made things more problematic. Perhaps we should demonstrate to him -- and every other angry young man like him -- that we aren't scared of his dumb Internet rhetoric. Not in the least.

And let's reel in our use of the word "terrorism" back in.