Don’t Say ‘Terrorist’ About ‘White People Like Ourselves’
Generally, news outlets don’t explain why they aren’t calling Roof a terrorist suspect; they just rarely use the word. But the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump gave it a shot in a piece headlined “Why We Shouldn’t Call Dylann Roof a Terrorist” (6/19/15), and his rationale is worth taking a look at.
Bump starts out by acknowledging that “a terroristic act, which this was, is treated and identified differently when the actor is a young white man.” He contrasts the treatment of the Charleston massacre with the attack on the Mohammad 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.“But,” Bump then says, “we shouldn’t call Dylann Roof a terrorist.” His argument for this:
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.”… What if we just call him a racist, grotesque person. What if we laughed at him instead of telling him he scared us?This makes as much sense as arguing that you shouldn’t charge someone with kidnapping because the person they abducted wasn’t a kid. “Terrorism” is the name of a crime, and the relevant question isn’t whether we like the etymology of the term, but whether the murders fit the elements of the definition—which has to do with intent to intimidate or coerce, not with whether anyone actually felt “terror.”
On some level, Bump understands that “terrorism” is a legal term with serious legal consequences, and that the fact that it’s unevenly applied based on the race and religion of the perpetrators is a real problem:
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.This, Bump notes, “reflects the same racial chasm that Roof wanted to exacerbate.”
He also notes that the word has become politicized by the “War on Terror”—”which is, in essence, a war on certain groups of Middle Easterners and Muslims.” As Bump observes, “Calling more non-American people terrorists also serves to bolster the arguments of those calling for more military intervention.” Which leads him to conclude that “the problem…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.”
Yet Bump doesn’t seem to have written a column about how “we’re too quick to call everyone else a terrorist”; he didn’t seem to have any problem referring to the Boston Marathon bombing as “terrorism,” for example. (“The key component to any terrorist attack is luck” was the lead sentence for a piece he wrote on the Tsarnaev brothers, for instance—The Wire, 4/22/13.) So why write this piece, urging people to do what most journalists are already doing—avoiding saying “terrorism” in connection to Charleston?
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…. We can identify much more easily with who he is.Huh. You would think a self-respecting journalist, recognizing this kind of irrational bias in himself, would try to avoid letting it influence his work—would certainly not want to call for giving a criminal suspect special journalistic treatment based on this identification. Yet there’s not really any other explanation offered in the column as to why it was written about Roof and not about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Bump closes his column by rejecting the arguments that referring to the Charleston massacre as “racial terrorism” would “help…America come to terms with the fact that the ideology he assumed is dangerous and urgent” and put Roof in line for stiffer penalties. “Fine,” he says—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.Let me note parenthetically that the law constantly takes intent into account—it’s the difference between murder and manslaughter, to name just one example—so suggesting that there’s something odd about taking the intent of a murder into account is specious.
And let’s reel in our use of the word “terrorism” back in.
But the real debate here is not about whether terrorism is worse than mass murder with no political motive; it’s whether we’re going to call some acts of politically motivated murder “terrorism” while withholding that label from other murders that are equally politically motivated—when we know that this label has real consequences, legally and politically.
“We aren’t scared by his dumb Internet rhetoric,” says Bump. If he’s still using “we” to mean “white people like ourselves,” it is certainly true that whites generally don’t feel personally afraid of white supremacist terrorist who target African-Americans. They’re much more likely to be afraid of Muslim terrorists who target Americans in general—even though right-wing extremists (not all of whom are white supremacists, of course) killed five times as many people in this country as Muslim extremists in the decade after 9/11, according to a study from the US Military Academy (New York Times, 6/16/15).
If you really think the word “terrorism” is being used too much, you should argue against it in the cases where it’s actually frequently used—which is mostly in cases involving Muslim suspects. But that would mean going against conventional wisdom, possibly with some professional cost. To argue instead that journalists are right to avoid the label with regard to a suspect with whom “we can identify much more easily”—well, there’s never much of price to be paid for endorsing institutional prejudices.
Jim Naureckas is the editor of FAIR.org.
Messages can be sent to the Washington Post at email@example.com, or via Twitter @washingtonpost. Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.
The racist disease we never discuss: Dylann Roof, over-policing and the real story about safety in America
People of comfort get freedom and security. People of color and the poor get neither
by Corey Robin
I’ll admit: When I first read that statement, I thought Obama was talking about the police. Unfair of me perhaps, but it’s not as if we haven’t now been through multiple rounds of high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of the police.
Indeed, until Wednesday’s murders, it seemed as if the national conversation about public safety had dramatically and fruitfully shifted. From a demand for police protection of white citizens against black crime—which dominated political discussion from the 1970s to the 1990s—to a scrutiny of the very instruments of that presumed protection. And how those instruments are harming African American citizens.
It’s tempting to seize on this moment as an opportunity to broaden that discussion beyond the racism of prisons and policing to that of society itself. In a way, that’s what Obama was trying to do by focusing on the threat posed not by the state or its instruments but by private guns in the hands of private killers like Dylann Roof.
But that may not be the wisest move, at least not yet. So long as the discussion is framed as one of protection, of safety and security, we won’t get beyond the society that produced Dylann Roof. Not only has the discourse of protection contributed to the racist practices and institutions of our overly policed and incarcerated society, but it also prevents us from seeing, much less tackling, the broader, systemic inequalities that might ultimately reduce those practices and institutions.
Since the 1960s, when law and order became the rallying cry of the country’s rightward turn, particularly around issues of racial inequality, the notion that safety and security are the primary political goods has migrated across the ideological spectrum. In 1975, the influential libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick declared that a “minimal state”—“limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts”—was the only legitimate form of government.
Though critical of the minimal state, liberals have also come to believe that “the ‘first’ political question,” in the words of British philosopher Bernard Williams, is “the securing of order, protection, safety, trust, and the preconditions of cooperation. It is ‘first’ because solving it is the condition of solving, indeed posing, any others.” Meeting those requirements of order, protection, safety, and so on is what distinguishes a legitimate state from an illegitimate state.
Providing for the safety and security of citizens, in this view, may not be a political question at all. It is instead the ground upon which we ask and answer all political questions. Before we can talk about justice or equality, before we can debate the kinds of schools we want or the amount of retirement or medical care we need, we have to be safe in our bodies and secure in our rights (minimally defined). Like the faith in God that once lay at the foundation of political order, the provision of safety and security is supposed to lie beneath or beyond politics. Whether we’re black or white, rich or poor, men or women, everyone needs it, all are entitled to it, no one can dispute it.
Unless we address those deep inequalities and systemic injustices that this security consensus declares to be secondary or ancillary, however, we’re not likely to provide for that security in any kind of universal way. If anything, we’ll make some men and women less safe and less secure.
Not only are blacks systematically under-protected against crime but so are they—and the poor more generally—over-policed by the state. That’s no accident, argues Georgetown Law professor David Cole, for “our criminal justice system affirmatively depends on” inequalities of class and race. It grants broad constitutional rights—against unreasonable searches and seizures, say, or to the defense of counsel—to all citizens. But it interprets those rights in such a way that they are enjoyed by wealthier, more privileged citizens. People of comfort get freedom and security; people of color and the poor get neither. Yet pay for both. “By exploiting society’s ‘background inequality,” Cole notes, the country “sidesteps the more difficult question of how much constitutional protection we could afford if we were willing to ensure that it was enjoyed equally by all people.”
To assume that the state can provide for the safety and security of the most subjugated classes in America without addressing the fact of their subjugation is to assume away the last half-century of political experience. If anything, the discourse of safety and security has made those classes less secure, less safe: not merely from freelance killers like Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman, who claim to be acting on behalf of their own safety and that of white society, but also from the police. As Cole writes, the proliferation of criminal laws and quality-of-life regulations that are supposed to make poor and black communities safer often serve as a pretext for the most intrusive and coercive modes of policing in those communities.
The net of traffic regulations is so wide that everyone will fall within it, and as a result police officers have virtually unfettered discretion to decide whom to stop. That discretion will often be guided by the same prejudices and stereotypes that guide bus and train sweeps. And as a result, minority drivers on the nation’s highways simply do not have the same Fourth Amendment rights as whites.Far from providing the ground upon which a more expansive vision of social policy can be built, the discourse of safety and security ensures that politics never gets off the ground at all. When we make the safety and security the sine qua non of politics—whether in the form of Nozick’s minimal state or Williams’ “Basic Legitimation Demand”—we start refracting all political problems through that lens. As the political scientist Marie Gottschalk has recently argued:
Problems such as crime, poverty, mass unemployment, and mass incarceration are no longer seen as having fundamental structural causes that can be ameliorated via policies and resources mobilized by the state. Rather, these problems are regarded as products either of fate or individual action….Anyone deemed unable or unwilling to change must be banished—either to the prison or to the prison beyond the prison represented by probation, parole, community sanctions, drug courts, and immigrant detention.Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon goes further, claiming that our entire society is now organized around the principle “governing through crime.” Social problems are treated as crimes, citizens as victims or criminals, and solutions as punishments.
Given the historic vulnerability of African Americans to the despotic power of whites, whose crimes against them so often went unpunished, it makes perfect semse that the demand for justice should sometimes assume a penal form. Not merely under slavery and Jim Crow, but also today, when the police and private citizens kill blacks with seeming impunity. Of all the things Dylan Roof said to and about his victims, that “you have to go” is by far the most chilling. Seldom have the words of a murderer been so well chosen: not only do they reveal his belief that it is his power, his right as a white man of all of 21 years, to select who is and is not a part of the body politic, who must be gotten rid of and what remains, but they also give voice to an ancient dispensation in this country, a conviction that the only solution to the Negro Question is expulsion or elimination. It was Jefferson who spoke darkly—part warning, part incantation—of “convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race” and who said of the black slave: “when freed, he must be removed from beyond the mixture.”
In 1833, John C. Calhoun, a slaveholder and a racist who had been Andrew Jackson’s Vice President and was now representing South Carolina in the Senate, defended the honor of his state by claiming that “no State has been more profuse of its blood in the cause of the country.” Calhoun was referring to South Carolina’s sacrifices during the American Revolution, but his comments can be usefully read against the grain of this week’s events.
Dylann Roof shed blood for the sake of a racism that, if not quite the cause of the country, is nevertheless not exclusive to South Carolina or the South. To counter that bloodshed, we need to move beyond a politics of safety and security that would seek only to punish or prevent it. For that politics of prevention and protection, of safety and security, has indeed become the cause of the country. A cause that is all too friendly to racial inequality—and all too hostile to a politics that might overcome it.
I have been waiting fervently since last wednesday night to see/hear a black person in this country actually SAY ALOUD IN PUBLIC what the great majority of us are no doubt actually thinking and feeling about the brutal racist/white supremacist terrorist act of mass murder in Charleston, SC. and what it ACTUALLY MEANS to us. I was beginning to think/dread that no black human being would actually be given the opportunity to step forward and actually appear IN PUBLIC MEDIA to once again SAY ALOUD what we REALLY THINK AND FEEL about this truly heinous act.
FINALLY we don't have to wait any longer because MS. ROXANE GAY has come to our rescue and said aloud what desperately needs and deserves to be said so there will be no more "misunderstanding" about what this mass murder was really about and what it really means.
SO THANK YOU SISTER GAY...WE TRULY NEED AND DEEPLY APPRECIATE YOUR WORDS AND THEIR MEANING WHETHER ANYONE ELSE IN THIS DELUSIONAL COUNTRY "UNDERSTANDS" OR "GETS IT" OR NOT...
The Opinion Pages | Contributing Op-Ed Writer
Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof
by Roxane Gay
JUNE 23, 2015
New York Times
I DO NOT forgive Dylann Roof, a racist terrorist whose name I hate saying or knowing. I have no immediate connection to what happened in Charleston, S.C., last week beyond my humanity and my blackness, but I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice.
My unwillingness to forgive this man does not give him any kind of power. I am not filled with hate for this man because he is beneath my contempt. I do not believe in the death penalty so I don’t wish to see him dead. My lack of forgiveness serves as a reminder that there are some acts that are so terrible that we should recognize them as such. We should recognize them as beyond forgiving.
I struggle with faith but I was raised Catholic. I believe God is a God of love but cannot understand how that love is not powerful enough to save us from ourselves. As a child, I learned that forgiveness requires reconciliation by way of confession and penance. We must admit our sins. We must atone for our sins. When I went to confession each week, I told the priest my childish sins — fighting with my brothers, saying a curse word, the rather minor infractions of a sheltered Nebraska girl. When I didn’t have a sin to confess, I made something up, which was also a sin. After confession, I knelt at a pew and did my penance, and thought about the wrong I had done and then I tried to be better. I’m not sure I succeeded all that often.
Ever the daydreamer, I spent most of my time in Sunday Mass lost in my imagination. The one prayer that stayed with me was “Our Father” and the line “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I always got stuck on that part. It’s a nice idea that we could forgive those who might commit the same sins we are apt to commit but surely, there must be a line. Surely there are some trespasses most of us would not commit. What then?
Forgiveness does not come easily to me. I am fine with this failing. I am particularly unwilling to forgive those who show no remorse, who don’t demonstrate any interest in reconciliation. I do not believe there has been enough time since this terrorist attack for anyone to forgive. The bodies of the dead are still being buried. We are still memorizing their names: Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, DePayne Middleton Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton and Myra Thompson.
We are still memorizing these names but the families who loved the people who carried these names have forgiven Dylann Roof. They offered up testimony in court, less than 48 hours after the trauma of losing their loved ones in so brutal a manner. Alana Simmons, who lost her grandfather, said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love.” Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, said: “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
I deeply respect the families of the nine slain who are able to forgive this terrorist and his murderous racism. I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.
Nine people are dead. Nine black people are dead. They were murdered in a terrorist attack.
Over the weekend, newspapers across the country shared headlines of forgiveness from the families of the nine slain. The dominant media narrative vigorously embraced that notion of forgiveness, seeming to believe that if we forgive we have somehow found a way to make sense of the incomprehensible.
We are reminded of the power of whiteness. Predictably, alongside the forgiveness story, the media has tried to humanize this terrorist. They have tried to understand Dylann Roof’s hatred because surely, there must be an explanation for so heinous an act. At the gunman’s bond hearing, the judge, who was once reprimanded for using the N-word from the bench, talked about how not only were the nine slain and their families victims, but so were the relatives of the terrorist. There are no limits to the power of whiteness when it comes to calls for mercy.
The call for forgiveness is a painfully familiar refrain when black people suffer. White people embrace narratives about forgiveness so they can pretend the world is a fairer place than it actually is, and that racism is merely a vestige of a painful past instead of this indelible part of our present.
Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.
Mr. Roof’s racism was blunt and raggedly formed. It was bred by a culture in which we constantly have to shout “Black lives matter!” because there is so much evidence to the contrary. This terrorist was raised in this culture. He made racist jokes with his friends. He shared his plans with his roommate. It’s much easier to introduce forgiveness into the conversation than to sit with that reality and consider all who are complicit.
What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.
Roxane Gay is the author of “An Untamed State” and “Bad Feminist” and a contributing opinion writer.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 24, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Why I Can’t Forgive the Killer in Charleston.
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
by Zoé Samudzi,
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By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! | Video Interview
Is the FBI Ignoring White Violence by Refusing to Call Dylann Roof a Terrorist?
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