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.