It’s important to refer to the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina as an act of terrorism. I join with others (like here and here) in insisting not only that the June 17 massacre meets the FBI’s definition of terrorism, but also that calling it by its proper name is important to highlight America’s long history of terrorism against African Americans.
|Photo courtesy of ibtimes.com|
There may be a connection between Wednesday’s terrorist attack and the thwarted 1822 slave revolt centered at the church (see articles here and here). Even more likely is a connection with April’s shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot in the back and killed by a white police officer in Charleston as he tried to flee. (The police officer was indicted for murder.) The church’s pastor, Clementa Pinckney who was also a state senator, had led a prayer vigil for Scott and had pushed for police officers to wear body cameras.
There’s another reason to call this a terrorist attack: to help dispel the deeply mistaken, yet widely held, notion that all terrorists are Muslims. Peter Bergen of CNN proposes a thought experiment:
If this attack on the church in Charleston had been conducted by a Muslim man shouting "Allahu akbar," what is already a big news story would have become even bigger, as it would appear to fit so well into the political and media narrative that Muslim militants are the major terrorist problem in the United States.
Oh, and it’s a false narrative, Bergen points out. Most racist and anti-government extremist violence in the US since 9/11 has not been of the jihadist sort (read his column for examples). I meet people all the time who say things like, “Doesn’t it seem as though all the terrorists are Muslims?” Well, if we only use the term “terrorism” when Muslims are involved, of course it will seem that way!
I will admit that I am not a fan of the language of terrorism for anything. It strikes me as a euphemism that can cover over different kinds of violence and make us less attentive to what’s really going on. But I’ve also become aware that within a society like contemporary America that uses this language quite a lot for political ends, its selective use and non-use can signal, bring about, and sustain its own sleight of hand or double standard.
So as long as the language of terrorism is being used, let’s have the courage to apply it properly. Violence like Charleston, the result of racist and white supremacist ideologies, is an act of terror against America’s struggle for Black freedom, security, and equality.
Craig Hovey is executive director of the Ashland Center for Nonviolence.