At 9 PM on Wednesday, a shooter entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, killing 9 people who had gathered for Bible study. The FBI has classified the attack as a “hate crime.” Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley said, “To walk into a church and shoot someone is out of pure hatred.”
I could not agree more. The shooting was borne of hate, as is any indiscriminate act of violence. But does that make this a “hate crime?” What about calling it an act of terrorism? Had the shooter not been white, I am certain some of this morning’s headlines would have floated a “possible ISIS-inspired attack.” Media and the general public tend to think non-Muslims aren’t terrorists, and because the shooter is seen in CCTV video to be white, he probably isn’t Muslim.
That is, of course, a ridiculous statement. And yet, it seems to be a common way to determine what is hate-driven violence and what is terrorism.
The United States has a problem with homegrown violent extremism, but it does not stem from where most might think. Indeed, most violent extremism is driven by a racist or anti-government ideology. Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer write in the New York Times about a survey conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum. In this study, they found that across 382 law enforcement agencies, 74% called anti-government extremism one of the top terrorist threats; 39% named Islamic extremism as one of the top terrorist threats.
Statistics like these have been known amongst law enforcement for years. The New York Times op-ed runs down a list of studies finding that anti-government extremism and racial extremism are the dominant terrorist threats in the United States. And there are dozens more such studies, put out by the likes of the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Looking at the Charleston shooting, how is that a hate crime but not terrorism? Is it the motivation behind the action? Just what is terrorism anyway? There are many definitions for terrorism and homegrown extremism, not just in academic and industry literature but within the government itself. DHS, FBI, CIA and other three-letter agencies all use slightly different definitions for what constitutes terrorism. There is no common agreement in the federal government on what terrorism is, much less a clear definition in the public square.
A “hate crime” is defined by the U.S. Congress as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”
Using the common elements across government definitions, terrorism is an act of violence or attempted act of violence that is designed to raise public awareness of an ideology, induce fear, and exact some measure of response from the public and the government.
There are many unanswered questions about what motivated the South Carolina shooter. Did he conduct this attack because he hates Christians or African Americans? Or did he conduct this attack because he was motivated by a hateful ideology and sought to advance that ideology through violent action? We’re kind of splitting hairs at this point.
This is not just semantics, however. As a country, we need to get it out of our heads that terrorism is always driven by Islamic extremism. That kind of assumption is what underpins the (hateful) ideology of people like American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) President Pamela Geller and her campaign to brand Islam as inherently violent. When we take a broader view and understand that extremist ideology can be driven by a range of ideas (including racism and issue orientation, as well as religion), we can more effectively address the persistent terrorist threat in this country. If only Muslims can be terrorists, then there are a lot of people out there who have escaped the damning characterization as terrorists. (My fellow Security Debrief contributor Dr. Erroll Southers recently gave a TedX Talk on this very subject.)
Murder is murder, and when the Charleston shooter is caught, he will face the harshest charges, however we characterize the attack. But this tragedy is an opportunity to take a cold, hard look at the many violent ideologies in the United States and mature our understanding of the persistent extremist threat within this country.