Plain and Simple

Get Real: Charleston Church Shooting Was Terrorism

Tragedy? Yes. Act of unspeakable evil? Check. But it’s important that we don’t flinch from calling it what it was—an act of terrorism.

06.18.15 10:25 PM ET

The ‎Charleston shooting‬ involved the assassination of a state senator and the intentional killing and terrorizing of African Americans. This was a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. It’s really that simple.

Yet we still aren’t hearing the media, law enforcement, or elected officials describe it as such. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley, Jr., called this horrific attack everything but terrorism: “This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act, committed by a hateful and deranged mind.

Flowers for the victims of Wednesday's shootings, are laid near a police barricade in Charleston, South Carolina, June 18, 2015. Police in Charleston were searching for a white gunman on Thursday who killed nine people in a historic African-American church, in an attack that police and the city's mayor described as a hate crime. REUTERS/Randall Hill - RTX1H2U0

Randall Hill/Reuters

And the media have employed words like “egregious” and “heartbreaking,” but there has been little discussion of whether the deadly assault by Dylann Roof was terrorism under U.S. law. (Although I must commend CNN’s Chris Cuomo for raising the terrorism angle on New Day Thursday morning and for tweeting during that discussion: “terrorism doesn’t just mean ‘Muslim extremism.’”)

Yes, I know we don’t have all the facts yet and things could change, but what we do have so far at least makes the case that Roof’s attack was “domestic terrorism” under U.S. law. The controlling federal statute, 18 U.S.C. Section 2331, provides that “domestic terrorism” means activities with the following three characteristics:

1. Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
2. Appear intended (a) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

(b) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(c) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and

3. Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

Elements one and three of this statute are clearly fulfilled. Roof committed an act dangerous to human life (nine murders) and it took place in the United States. The only question is whether this attack was intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population” or “to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination…”

When you examine what we know about Roof and what he reportedly stated during the shooting, it’s clear to me that he wanted to “coerce and intimidate” America’s black population. His Facebook page depicted him wearing a jacked adorned with the flags of two former white supremacist governments (apartheid era South Africa and Rhodesia.) Experts note that these are both symbols of the white supremacist movement. Also Roof’s car had a license plate with the Confederate flag affixed to it.

During the shooting, Roof reportedly told witnesses that he was there “to shoot black people.” Even more telling was Roof’s remark, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

Keep in mind that Roof didn’t attack a church near his home in Lexington, South Carolina. Instead he traveled nearly two hours to a historic church for the black community, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. As President Obama noted in his remarks Thursday, this was “more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.”

In fact, this very church was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, who was one of the leaders of a planned slave revolt in the Charleston area in 1822. That revolt was planned to happen on June 17, 1822, 193 years to the day before Roof’s attack. (The revolt was thwarted by local officials and Vesey, along with five slaves, were hung after a secret trial.)

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Roof’s comment that blacks were “taking over the country“ and “have to go” makes it clear that his murderous rampage was at the very least intended to intimidate the African American community in that area. He wanted to terrorize them so they would not even feel safe in their own place of worship.

Roof also assassinated an elected official, South Carolina State Senator Clementa Pinckney, the well-known pastor of the church. Was this assassination intended to impact the conduct of government? Again Roof’s comment that blacks are taking over our country would arguably indicate that he wanted to remove black elected officials from office, which would certainly influence government policies.

Given these facts, as a former trial lawyer, I can say it appears that Roof’s conduct warrants charging him with domestic terrorism under this federal statute.

So why does it matter if Roof is charged with terrorism or labeled a terrorist by the media? Simple. Because it will save more Americans’ lives in the long run.

Surreace Cox, of North Charleston, S.C., holds a sign during a prayer vigil down the street from the Emanuel AME Church early Thursday, June 18, 2015, following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C.

David Goldman/AP

As the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a report released a few months ago, between 2009 and February 2015, a domestic terrorist attack or foiled attack occurred every 34 days. The perpetrators of these attacks range from anti-government actors to hate groups to Islamic-related. But despite what many might think, Muslim terrorists accounted for a fraction of the total attacks.

But when reports warn about the rising threat of right-wing domestic terrorists, like the 2009 DHS report or the 2013 study by West Point, they are met with a backlash from many conservatives. Instead these conservatives would prefer to focus only on terrorism threatened by Muslims because they refuse to admit that some in their own community could be dangerous.

Bottom line is that if we want to save American lives, we need to address all forms of terrorism. We need to dedicate government resources to counter right wing terror plots as well as those connected to ISIS or Al Qaeda.

Our focus now should be providing support to those grieving families who lost loved ones in this terror attack. But if we want to prevent another attack on an African American church or against any group of Americans for that matter, we need to not be afraid to call and charge anyone who commits an act of terrorism against American citizens a terrorist.