There is a double-standard at play, with respect to our understanding of the Charleston killer. Though his act and his stated motivation conforms squarely within the legal definition of terrorism, many do not regard him as a terrorist, but as a common criminal – yet another well-armed, mentally-ill American. If, for example, he had been an Islamist, he would have been unequivocally identified as a terrorist, as were the conspirators behind the Boston Marathon and Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Consider this partial definition of terrorism, from the FBI’s website:
“Domestic terrorism” means activities… 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 definition calls for a specific act and an accompanying mental element. There’s no debate on the act. As for the intent, the accused put out a lengthy statement, declaring his racial and political beliefs and goals. And thus there can be no serious question as to whether what occurred in Charleston fits the legal definition of terrorism. It does, and obviously so.
And so we come to the curious reaction of many – including FBI director James Comey – who would not regard the accused as a terrorist, but as a mere criminal, and quite possibly insane. What’s happened is that white supremacy, as a political movement, has become so alien to mainstream America, that it’s no longer comprehensible as a cogent political philosophy.
Those who commit acts of violence in furtherance of white supremacy are not afforded the dignity of being labeled political activists. Rather, they are belittled as kooks and-or criminals. We make no attempt to meet or comprehend their arguments – we summarily dismiss them as the product of ignorance, at best, if not madness. This is progress.
In the first half of the 20th century, the white supremacy movement was a basic part of the American political landscape. One-time Klan members included President Truman, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, and Senator Robert Byrd. Today, its adherents no longer seem like political actors, but as crazies, who might as well be wearing tinfoil hats in place of white hoods. This, again, is progress.
By comparison, they who commit indistinguishably insane acts under the auspices of religion are called “extremists” or “radicals.” Instead of likewise dismissing them as criminals and crazies, Islamist terrorists are dignified as political activists. While white supremacy has been dispatched to the dustbin of bad ideas, killing in furtherance of religion still has a recognizable logic, such that its advocates are not immediately identified as insane, criminally or otherwise.
What constitutes sanity or madness in a given time and place is informed by cultural and social norms, and even economics, and always has been. Michel Foucault filled three hundred pages adding window dressing to this simple observation, in his tedious classic Madness and Civilization. That we might treat the Charleston shooter as a mere criminal, or a madman, is an improvement. One hopes that we, as a society, will come to see violence committed in the name of religion to be no less mad.
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