I don’t know. Has anyone argued adamantly that “terrorism” doesn’t apply to what happened here? If there’s a debate to be had, it’s really only over whether there’s a meaningful distinction between “hate crimes” and “terrorism” that would place this shooting in the first category but not the second.
“We have been conditioned to accept that if the violence is committed by a Muslim, then it is terrorism,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington, said Thursday in a telephone interview.
“If the same violence is committed by a white supremacist or apartheid sympathizer and is not a Muslim, we start to look for excuses — he might be insane, maybe he was pushed too hard,” Mr. Awad said…
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy.”
Civil rights advocates said the Charleston attack not only fit the dictionary definition of terrorism but reflected a history of attempts by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups to terrorize African-Americans.
The reason “he might be insane” leaps to people’s minds after a mass shooting is because there is, as you may have heard, a tradition in America of genuinely insane people shooting up crowds for no coherent reason. Jared Loughner, James Holmes, and Adam Lanza are three recent examples. None had a discernible political motive. Roof obviously did. That cultural template, that mass shooters nowadays are usually deliriously nuts, probably informed some of the first perceptions of Roof yesterday even though it’s turned out not to apply in this case. Beyond that, most people conceptualize “terrorism” as mainly a foreign threat against America in its entirety after 9/11 (U.S. counterterrorism is effectively a subset of foreign policy) and a creature of sinister, highly capable organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS more so than random individuals. If a group of Russian nationalists set off a car bomb in Times Square out of rage over U.S. sanctions on Russia, no one would have trouble calling that terrorism. All the markers would be there — foreign-based, organized, carefully planned, highly lethal, obviously political. “Hate crime” tends to be used for politically motivated crimes that don’t have those same markers — domestic, spontaneous, committed by an individual, usually not as lethal as a major terror attack. More importantly, “hate crime” usually describes the targeting of a sub-group of Americans for a characteristic they share — race, religion, ethnicity, etc — rather than for the fact that they’re Americans.
But not always. When that jihadi animal killed four French Jews at a kosher deli in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo, no one thought that was a “hate crime” because they were targeted first and foremost for their religion. It was terrorism. If some American-based anti-Christian group shot up a Christian church, no doubt that would be regarded as terrorism. McVeigh’s plot was hatched domestically and he was certainly a terrorist (although the number of victims and the fact that he targeted the U.S. government writ large are more traditional markers of “terrorism.”) Dzhokhar Tsarnaev grew up in America, plotted only with his brother, and ended up killing fewer people than Dylann Roof did and he’s regarded as a terrorist (although Tsarnaev shared an ideology with jihadis abroad, the quintessential example of terrorists in the public’s mind). There’s no reason Roof shouldn’t be considered a lone-wolf terrorist too: Like jihadi lone wolves, he may not have formally been part of an organization but he shared an ideology with white-supremacist groups that have killed in the past, not unlike ISIS sympathizers in the U.S. hatching plots to impress their comrades in Syria. By his own (alleged) admission, he hoped to start a race war by attacking blacks, exactly the sort of tactic that Sunni jihadis use in bombing Shiite sites in hopes that the Shiites will retaliate and that that retaliation will radicalize other fellow Sunnis. You’re not stretching the word “terrorism” much to get him in under the umbrella.
To the extent anyone’s lukewarm to using that term, there are various reasons why they might feel that way beyond the stupid “white people can’t be terrorists!” position that some lefties impute to the right-wing voices in their head. One goes back to what I mentioned above about “terrorism” typically involving a high body count. If Roof hadn’t killed anyone but instead had assaulted one person non-lethally, would that still qualify as “terrorism”? If all hate crimes are terrorism, let’s drop “hate crimes” and use the proper terminology. Another reason people might resist, I think, is that the jihadi threat is an unusually formidable one for American foreign policy, especially with ISIS and AQ taking over Syria, and many Americans want a word that captures the special risk it poses. That’s not a perfect explanation — remember my hypothetical about Russian nationalists — but it does explain why, after 9/11, violence by Muslims is almost always seen through the prism of “terrorism.” More broadly, many Americans still conceive of terrorism as a weapon of war and war is typically imagined as a conflict between states or with external enemy groups. That’s why the Russian-nationalist hypothetical is an easy one, and that’s why even the worst killers here in the U.S., including the terrorist Tsarnaev, end up at mainland federal prisons instead of at Gitmo. Americans tend to think of mass murder hatched domestically as crime and mass murder hatched abroad as terrorism, i.e. war. Although, again, not always: McVeigh is the most famous exception. Roof is another.