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Returning to the “Is Dylann Roof a Terrorist?” controversy:

First, I’m glad that my first offering spurred so much commentary and discussion – and nearly all of it civil. So thanks to all RealityChek readers.

Second, at the risk of over-simplifying some, it seems that those who disagree seem to be focused on the ideas that (1) any attack this savage and ideologically (i.e., racially) motivated must by definition be intended to terrorize and frighten and (2) that the violent white supremacist movement in America, and its global connections, are much bigger and more extensive than I recognize.

These are all valid points, but I believe that they are outweighed by the following considerations (some of which I’ve already addressed briefly either on Facebook or on Twitter):

> “Logically,” anyway, Charleston-style violence can just as easily be explained by simple race hatred, or by the desire for revenge, as by a wish to instill fear in victim populations or (presumably) their sympathizers. In fact, if you read Roof’s on-line “manifesto,” you’ll see how obsessed he was with the ideas that black murders of whites were being ignored while white on black incidents – like George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida – were supposedly filling the media instead; that all southern whites were being blamed for slavery even though only a minority were slave-owners; that school integration was exposing white students to black counterparts and their allegedly bigoted attitudes, etc.

It’s true that the manifesto speaks of “taking back” America from…what exactly is not clear, though it seems that he’s referring to the post-civil rights era, or even the post-emancipation era, and all of the legal equality and other forms of black progress they’ve fostered, however incompletely. At other places, Roof seems as if he’s talking about dramatically reducing the black population of either “the South” or of the nation as a whole. But there’s not much of a coherent agenda here, or any type of an agenda.

Although at one point, Roof writes that “It is far from being too late for America or Europe,” more of his rant focuses on how hopeless he believes the current situation to be.

In fact, here’s how he ends his polemic:  

“To take a saying from a film, ‘I see all this stuff going on, and I dont see anyone doing anything about it. And it pisses me off.’ To take a saying from my favorite film, ‘Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.’

“I have no choice. I am not in a position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”

It’s possible to interpret these words as a call to action. But in my view, they’re best read as a suicide note from someone determined to carry out a kind of racist kamikaze mission.

>Just as important, his complaint that his fellow white supremacists are simply “talking on the internet” at the least signals his own belief that the movement is not a force that threatens society in general, and certainly not one that’s willing to generate nearly enough violence to create significant nation-wide panic, much less move America any closer to its aims.

Of course, Roof’s words alone don’t prove the point. But let’s ask ourselves, starting with me and my fellow Jews (who probably wouldn’t be real well off in an America run by the Dylann Roofs): How many of you live in fear of attack or even any contact with members of white supremacist groups? I’ll ask the same question of black Americans and members of other minorities. And although I can’t genuinely put myself in their shoes, I’ll bet the vast majority would answer in the negative.

Do white supremacist groups exist? Of course? Do they communicate with each other? I’m sure they do. Are they growing in numbers? According to the Department of Homeland Security, yes. Nonetheless, this report specifically states that the agency’s intelligence bureau “has no specific information that domestic right wing terrorists are currently planning acts of violence….” Further, a New York Times op-ed article today cited by one commenter, which claims that “attacks like the mass murder in Charleston” can no longer be viewed “as isolated hate crimes…unconnected to a broader movement” mentions no other such domestic incidents.

In other words, for all the claims to the contrary, the evidence that these individuals and even groups are capable of affecting the climate of public opinion, much less the rhythms of our daily and national lives, on any ongoing basis looks to be lacking. 

And in this crucial respect, unlike Al Qaeda and various Palestinian Arab groups, the IRA for decades starting in the 1960s, and the KKK earlier in American history, Dylann Roof and his white supremacist counterparts don’t qualify as terrorists. Because context – and its accurate assessment – matters vitally.

At the same time, Roof and his ilk are clearly dangers to society, and need to be monitored closely and neutralized as soon as criminal intentions become clear. In other words, they’re supporters and have been perpetrators of hate crimes – which are detestable and intolerable acts. But they don’t pose nearly the threat of genuine terrorists, and America’s law enforcement and security apparatus should set its priorities accordingly.

By the way, the more I think about ISIS, the more I’m leading toward classifying it as a hostile state rather than a terrorist group, although the jury may still be out. ISIS has been fomenting activity beyond its main base of operations in Syria and Iraq, but the aim seems to be overthrowing existing governments and replacing them with branches of the so-called Caliphate it’s started to carve out in the Fertile Crescent region. In this respect, the group may more closely resemble the Soviet Union and Maoist Communist China and their efforts to stoke global revolution, than Al Qaeda. Or perhaps the main difference between Al Qaeda and ISIS is the latter’s greater success lately at seizing and holding big chunks of territory.

In any event, the potential of each to consolidate a terrorist training base and record of attacking Western targets puts them doesn’t put genuine terrorists in a different moral category than Dylann Roof and his fellow haters.  But it does to date justify government putting them in a different – and lesser – operational category