WATCH: Dylann Storm Roof appeared via video screen Friday afternoon during his first court hearing on nine charges of murder
Nine people lost their lives Wednesday night when a white gunman opened fire in a Charleston, South Carolina church, where black congregants were taking part in Bible study.
Dylann Roof, who was arrested the morning after in Shelby, North Carolina, reportedly told police he wanted to start a “race war.” An image of Roof, posted on Facebook, shows the 21-year-old with apartheid-era flags on his jacket. And a former friend told the Associated Press “blacks were taking over the world.”
Police have called the attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church a hate crime and Roof is facing nine murder charges. But he is not, at this time, facing any charges related to terrorism — something many people feel would be the appropriate term to use for this awful crime.
The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said Friday there could be no mistake that this was both a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism.
“Is the right terminology a lone shooter or is the right terminology a domestic terrorist,” Cornell William Brooks said to reporters in Charleston. “This was an act of racial terrorism and must be treated as such.”
The U.S. Department of Justice is now going to examine whether or not the massacre is an act of domestic terrorism.
“The department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism,” spokesperson Emily Pierce told Global News Friday afternoon.
What happened in Charleston certainly fits the definition of terrorism, according to Northeastern University professor and terrorism expert Max Abrahms.
“The more information we’ve learned about this guy, Dylann Roof, the more convinced I am that he is indeed a terrorist,” he told Global News in a phone interview from Tel Aviv.
He outlined the criteria that defines an act of terrorism, saying that terrorism involves a non-state actor but an individual or a cell, one that “uses violence against a civilian target for some sort of presumed political objective.”
Here’s how terrorism is defined in the U.S. code, according to the FBI website:
“I think that this church massacre meets all three criteria. Roof is not a government. A church is a civilian target. And what we’ve learned, over time, is that his motive was deeply political,” Abrahms said.
The problem is that scholars, politicians and media vary on whether or not to classify certain attacks as terrorism, particularly when it comes to crimes carried out by white supremacists.
“The United States has a long history of denying that the violence perpetrated by white supremacists is terrorism. When Americans think of terrorism, they tend to think of the international variety. They haven’t thought really to look at home… especially when it’s non-Islamic.”
He said the Ku Klux Klan was “absolutely a terrorist group,” but it’s not really regarded that way.
The lines between a hate crime and terrorism gets blurred because both affect more than just the “immediate victim(s) of the crime: both are intended to spread fear, Abrahms said.
And there is value in using different terminology, both in handing down punishment and putting the attack in a greater societal context. “Having a good understanding of what kind of attack it is could help us understand the motives and by extension help to lead to a better government response.”
The NAACP’s Brooks said that what happened at Mother Emanuel, as the historic black church is known, went against everything that America is supposed to stand for — an analogy that is often used when referring to attacks carried out by individuals or groups motivated by terrorist ideology such as that of ISIS.
He called on authorities to look into “the possibility that the shooter may have been inspired by others.
“Who was he acting on behalf of if anyone? Is this a matter of a lone shooter with a singular hatred?”
He pointed out the NAACP was established 106 years ago to “fight racialized violence” but more than a century later the organization is still responding to hatred against the black community and that this particular horrific act was a crime against more than just the people who were gunned down inside the church.
Black churches have historically been the target of attacks. They were the launch pads for civil rights protests and the fight for racial equality.
The 200-year-old Emanuel AME church itself has been targeted in the past.
It was burned to the ground in 1822 after one of the church’s founding members organized a slave uprising. That “rebellion” was intended to happen on June 17 that year, the same day Roof is alleged to have murdered the Emanuel AME parishioners 193 years later, Matthew J. Cressler noted in a column for Slate on Friday.
“The true terror of Dylann Roof’s attack on Emanuel AME is the fact that it fits neatly into an ongoing, blood-soaked history of white violence against black women, men, and children in religious institutions,” wrote Cressler, an African-American religion scholar and soon-to-be assistant professor at the College of Charleston.
He wrote, in a column titled Why White Terrorists Attack Black Churches, black churches “pose threats to white dominance in both quotidian and structural ways.
“Black churches and the people who give them life have far too frequently faced death for their resistance to racism. Failing to recognize this most recent attack for what it is does disservice to the lives lost in building this beloved community.”
With files from James Armstrong and The Associated Press