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Most debates over political labeling do way more harm than good, tending to result from the usually wrong-headed, guilt-ridden impulses of the political correctness crowd. But the latest controversy, sparked by the horrific Charleston, South Carolina killings, is worth considering – whether confessed shooter Dylan Roof should be considered a terrorist.

Here’s a representative example of the affirmative case, from a Washington Post blog. Given the historical racial atrocities it (rightly) lists, it is genuinely thought-provoking:

Black churches have long been a target of white supremacists who burned and bombed them in an effort to terrorize the black communities that those churches anchored. One of the most egregious terrorist acts in U.S. history was committed against a black church in Birmingham, Ala. in 1963. Four girls were killed when members of the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, a tragedy that ignited the Civil Rights Movement.”

“But listen to major media outlets and you won’t hear the word ‘terrorism’ used in coverage of Tuesday’s shooting. You won’t hear the white male shooter, identified as 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as ‘a possible terrorist.’ And if coverage of recent shootings by white suspects is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.”

The writer, University of Pennsylvania sociologist Anthea Butler, goes on to argue that:

U.S. media practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans and Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolfs — Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston already emphasized this shooting was an act of just ‘one hateful person — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as ‘No saint either.’”

As is often the case with the intrinsically emotional issue of race, Butler clearly goes too far in exculpating major crimes by African Americans and, it seems, violence perpetrated by Islamic extremists. (In contrast to her view that America suffers big problems with policing in low-income inner city neighborhoods, and that some public figures are too quick to invoke harmful and intellectually lazy stereotypes.)

But Butler is on stronger grounds, in my opinion, in dealing with Dylann Roof-like murderers and how they’re routinely described. If terrorism is indeed violence against innocent civilians aimed at furthering political or social or economic or cultural agendas and beliefs (which seems right to me), then racists like Roof arguably qualify. Nor should it matter whether they act alone or in groups.

I do, however, believe that Butler and those who agree with her re terrorism are missing a crucial ingredient in the equation: historical context. As I see it, the racist violence that raged on a large scale between the end of the Civil War through the mid-1960s absolutely should be seen as terrorism. The aim was nothing less than deterring blacks from exercising their existing rights and seeking more, scaring whites and others who supported them, and rallying like-minded bigots. Moreover, although the violence was backed by many fewer whites in the south (and other parts of the country), the segregationist program was entirely mainstream politics in the region for decades .

Can anyone honestly say that anything like these conditions holds today? Obviously too much racism remains in American life, and violence-prone Dylann Roof types can surely be found in most, if not all of the 50 states. Many of these, moreover, have formed organizations, so they can’t accurately all be dismissed as lone wolves.

Yet they enjoy the support of exactly no elected politicians, and their influence over the body politic as a whole is practically non-existent. Indeed, despite (far too much) lingering prejudice, and heated debate over racially charged issues like affirmative action and voter registration, endorsing explicit discrimination by public or private institutions has thankfully become nothing less than taboo in America.

In fact, another piece in the Washington Post, from black commentator Eugene Robinson, made the point eloquently. Just before (rightly) lamenting the endurance of racism, however, diminished, he noted that Charleston, “a multiracial, multicultural city is united in grief.” The same can be said for the country as a whole. This is a subtle but powerful reminder that terrorists need to have a critical mass of followers and sympathizers – and that America’s Dylann Roofs fall pathetically short of the mark. That’s also why his countrymen have been so quick to brand him as – almost unimaginably – sick. 

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