Everything indicates that the killing in an African-American church was an act of terrorism, and those who deny it do nothing but aggravate the problem.
It’s not a simple question of taxonomy. The response is important, because it allows us to understand the crime and know how to react to it.
To respond, we must first define terrorism. The dictionary isn’t very helpful, because it has more than 100 definitions. This disagreement results both in a sincere intellectual debate and realpolitik. In fact, the term is a formidable manipulation tool for those who believe, like Carl Schmitt, the German thinker no one wants anything to do with, that politics consists of distinguishing between friend and enemy. An example: In the ’80s, the United States considered the mujahedeen “freedom fighters.” Twenty years later, they were terrorists …
The definitions of terrorism do share some agreed-on criteria: A violent act committed outside of a combat zone; an innocent and symbolic target; the goal of spreading fear to influence a group or a state; and reference to an organized ideological struggle.
The conditions seem to be in place for the killer in Charleston. He drove two hours to get to a church that had fought to free the slaves. Then he allegedly fired on nine African-Americans to set off a race war. And then he left survivors so that his objective would be known.
But is he part of a fight for white supremacy? To maintain that this is not terrorism, you have to claim that this movement no longer exists, and that this is an isolated act. It’s because we assume that the problem has disappeared that we succeed in denying its most recent manifestation.
Further equally twisted reasoning was used by Lindsey Graham, senator from South Carolina. “I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.”
Because the act was insane, we assume that it could only have been committed by a crazy person. As if hate couldn’t exist outside of insanity.
Here in Canada, it was a certain segment of the left that last year was hurrying to diagnose from a distance mental illness in the people who committed the attacks in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and in Ottawa, in order to deny the influence of radical Islamism.
Of course, the relationship between crime and mental illness is complex. The two can be inextricably linked. But it is a little too easy to free the killer of his intention.
Washington wants to know who to aim its spies and its cannons at to combat radical Islamism. The response to domestic terrorism from the extreme right is less obvious. Denial is most convenient. It’s also what makes it the most cowardly.