FBI Director James Comey may have claimed that the Charleston massacre wasn’t an act of terrorism, sparking howls of protest and outrage.
The White House, notably, isn’t backing him up.
Speaking on Friday about the murder of nine African Americans by a self-avowed white supremacist, Comey said, “Terrorism is act of violence…to try to influence a public body or citizenry, so it’s more of a political act. And again based on what I know so far I don’t see it as a political act.”
Asked whether the White House agreed with Comey’s assessment, a spokesman referred The Daily Beast to an earlier statement from the Justice Department, which isn’t foreclosing any avenues of prosecution at this point.
“The department’s investigation of the shooting incident in Charleston, South Carolina, is ongoing,” spokeswoman Emily Pierce said in a statement on Friday, one day before Comey spoke. “This heartbreaking episode was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community, and the department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism.”
An FBI spokesman, while not retracting Comey’s remarks, told The Daily Beast that the director’s “comments were made while events were still fluid and based on the best information he had at the time.”
Since Comey spoke, the FBI has had more time to look into the manifesto that the shooter had posted online to explain his actions.
“We’re going to continue to follow the facts and learn more about the incident itself and what was behind it,” said spokesman Paul Bresson “In no way do [Comey’s] comments detract from our ability to conduct a thorough investigation.”
Comey, a former U.S. deputy attorney general, has a reputation as a thoughtful and assiduous lawyer, so his views on whether the Charleston massacre is a terrorist attack carried special resonance, aside from the fact that the FBI’s investigation will help determine whether the U.S. government brings terrorism charges. Comey was also the lead prosecutor on the 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers facility in Saudi Arabia, which at the time was being used as a temporary barracks for U.S. Air Force personnel.
Under U.S. law, domestic terrorism is defined as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that…appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping…” The activities must also take place “primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”
Based on the known facts, Dylann Roof’s murders inside the Emanuel AME church last week arguably fit the bill. In a manifesto written before the shootings, Roof makes clear his particular animus toward African Americans and says that legally enforced segregation “existed to protect us from them.” According to witnesses, Roof justified his shootings by accusing black people of “taking over our country” and said, “You have to go.” He also let some churchgoers live so they could tell others what he’d done and said.
Roof had also photographed himself with pro-Nazi paraphernalia, symbols associated with Apartheid, and in front of Confederate landmarks, acts that seem to illustrate his hatred of African Americans and that could help explain his decision to attack the church.
“As a former trial lawyer, I can say it appears that Roof’s conduct warrants charging him with domestic terrorism under this federal statute,” radio show host Dean Obeidallah wrote for The Daily Beast. Obeidallah and others have noted that Roof seems to have chosen his target, the Emanuel AME Church, because of its storied African-American history going back to the early 19th century, and that attacking his victims there was arguably meant to intimidate black people generally.
Comey’s remarks were met with biting response on social media and reflected a broader debate among lawmakers and experts about whether the term terrorism should be applied to Roof’s actions. Numerous commentators have pointed to an apparent double standard, in which a radical Muslim who attacks innocent people is called a terrorist, but a radical white supremacist who does the same thing is called mentally ill or deranged.
For instance, Republican presidential candidate and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham has called Roof “one of these wacked out kids” and chalked up his motivations to a mental problem. But in 2013, Graham used “terrorist” to describe Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two men who bombed the Boston Marathon, motivated by what law enforcement officials said was a radical view of Islam.
“This man, in my view, should be designated as a potential enemy combatant and we should be allowed to question him for intelligence-gathering purposes to find out about future attacks and terrorist organizations that may exist that he has knowledge of,” Graham said.
The reference to intelligence-gathering is notable in the current debate over Roof’s alleged acts and his possible connections to right-wing extremist groups. In a survey conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum, university professors Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer found the vast majority of law enforcement agencies in the United States think that domestic right-wing extremist groups pose a greater terrorist threat than al Qaeda and other foreign groups.
On Sunday, the chorus of lawmakers and public officials calling the Charleston massacre terrorism grew and became at least a nascent issue in the Republican presidential contest.
“I don’t think there’s any question when someone comes into a church for the reasons of racism and hate that they’re trying to terrorize people,” GOP presidential candidate and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum said on ABC’s This Week.
“I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that this is an act of terrorism. And it’s as purely evil as we’ve seen in this country in a long, long time,” Santorum said.
Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, echoed that sentiment, telling CBS’s Face the Nation that while it was up to prosecutors to determine if the killings meet the legal definition of terrorism, in his lay opinion, “I think you easily call it domestic terrorism.”
That was a view shared by civil rights leaders, as well.
“I think we need leadership, leadership not only in Congress, leadership in law enforcement, to call this what it is, domestic terrorism,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told Face the Nation.
That said, legal experts noted that there’s a difference between how a crime can be defined and the best way to prosecute it. Should authorities decide to charge Roof with terrorism, they would have to prove his motive. And that could be a much taller order than convicting Roof for murder, for which there seems to be abundant evidence already, experts said.