On Wednesday night, June 17, 2015, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was having Bible Study. Hours later, 9 Black church members were shot to death by Dylann Roof, a 21 year old White male.
Did Dylann Roof choose the date to send a message to the black community in the USA? After all, the 199-year-old church is the oldest AME Church in the South. Often referred to as "Mother Emanuel", it has played an important role in the history of South Carolina, including the slavery era, the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the 2010s. Its history is closely tied with its co-founder, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who purchased his freedom in 1799. The AME Church was founded in 1816 in response to the exclusion that Blacks received from the broader Methodist denomination; it was a safe haven site for the Underground Railroad.
Vesey was suspected of planning a slave rebellion in Charleston at the stroke of midnight on June 16, 1822, which was to erupt the following day June 17. Thirty-five people, including Vesey, were executed and the church was burned down. Was it a mere coincident that Roof killed his Black victims on the 193rd anniversary of that thwarted slave uprising? The rebuilt church, later known as Emanuel AME Church, was badly damaged in the 1886 Charleston earthquake. The current building dates from 1891.
According to reports in the media, Dylann Roof sat next to Senior Pastor State Senator Clementa Pinckney, initially listening to others during the Bible study. He started to disagree when they began discussing the Bible. At one point, he stood up and pulled a gun. Before shooting his victims, he said, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." He also reportedly said, "Y'all want something to pray about? I'll give you something to pray about." He reloaded his gun five times. He asked one of the survivors, "Did I shoot you?" She replied, "No." Then, he said, "Good, 'cause we need someone to survive, because I'm gonna shoot myself, and you'll be the only survivor." According to the son of one of the victims, who spoke to that survivor, the shooter allegedly turned the gun to his own head and pulled the trigger, but only then discovered he was out of ammunition. Before leaving the church, he reportedly "uttered a racially inflammatory statement" over the victims' bodies.
Roof was captured the next morning (June 18) in a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, approximately 245 miles (394 km) from the shooting scene. That day many flags, including those at the South Carolina State House, were flown at half-staff. The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina Confederate Monument near the state house, however, was not, as South Carolina law prohibits alteration of the flag without the consent of two-thirds of the state legislature. At a statehouse press conference on June 22, 2015, Governor Nikki Haley (originally of Sikh descent from India; now a Methodist Christian), flanked by elected officials of both parties, including U.S. Republican senators and former Republican Governor, called for the flag to be removed by the state legislature, saying that while the flag was "an integral part of our past, it does not represent the future" of South Carolina. "We are not going to allow this symbol to divide us any longer," she said.
The massacre of nine African-Americans in Charleston has been classified as a possible hate crime. But many civil rights advocates are asking why the attack has not officially been called terrorism. Apparently, the killer himself wanted to ignite a race war. He reportedly had told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston. One image from his Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of two nations used as emblems among American white supremacist movements, those of Rhodesia (today called Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. Another online photo showed Roof sitting on the hood of his parents' car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. According to his roommate, Roof expressed his support of racial segregation in the United States and had intended to start a civil war. He was agitated during scriptural discussion. To many Bible-thumping Christians, the scripture itself condemns the black people as a ‘cursed’ people (Gen. 9:20-27).
Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy.”
Civil rights advocates said the Charleston attack not only fit the dictionary definition of terrorism but reflected a history of attempts by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups to terrorize African-Americans. Professor Brian Phillips, a terrorism expert, said, "...the massacre in Charleston, S.C. Wednesday was clearly a terrorist act." However, James Comey, the FBI Director disagrees. He said, "Terrorism is act of violence done or threatened in order to try to influence a public body or citizenry, so it's more of a political act, and again, based on what I know, I don't see this as a political act. Doesn't make it any less horrific, but terrorism has a definition under federal law."
In a recent interview with the USA Today, Attorney General
Texas Governor Rick Perry called the massacre "an accident." Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (son of Indian immigrants from Punjab; he converted to Christianity), a fellow Republican, stated that it is hard to fathom an “incident” like this happening in America. To the conservative Christians like Bill O’Reilly of the Fox TV it was the action of a ‘disturbed’ individual, designed to terrorize people. In a recent broadcast of his show ‘Factor’, he staunchly insisted that racism is a nearly non-existent problem that is only represented by what he calls the “lunatic fringe.”
Most White Americans probably agree with O’Reilly on this. They see the massacre, committed by a fellow White, as a violent act (and not terrorism) done by a lone wolf – a fringe element of their society. And, as we have seen with other such cases, Roof’s religion – Christianity – is not deemed a problem here. Christianity is excused for the violence committed by one of its members!
It is worth pointing out here that assaults like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the attack on an anti-Islamic gathering in Garland, Texas, last month have been widely portrayed as acts of terrorism carried out by ‘Islamic’ extremists and not some ‘lone wolves’. Critics say, however, that assaults against African-Americans and Muslim Americans are rarely, if ever, called terrorism.
Is there a clear case of double standards?
Against the backdrop of rising worries about the Middle East, esp. ISIL, civil rights advocates see hypocrisy in the way the Charleston attack and the man under arrest in the shooting have been described by law enforcement officials and the news media.
“We have been conditioned to accept that if the violence is committed by a Muslim, then it is terrorism,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights advocacy group in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “If the same violence is committed by a white supremacist or apartheid sympathizer and is not a Muslim, we start to look for excuses — he might be insane, maybe he was pushed too hard,” Mr. Awad said.
Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim American radio show host and commentator, said it should be obvious that the Charleston killer was a terrorist. “We have a man who intentionally went to a black church, had animus toward black people and assassinated an elected official and eight other people,” he said. “It seems he was motivated by a desire to terrorize and kill black people.”
Samuel Sinyangwe, a civil rights activist who has helped chronicle violence against African-Americans, wrote on Twitter: “#CharlestonShooting terrorist wore an Apartheid flag on his jacket. If a Muslim man wore an ISIS flag, he wouldn’t get past mall security.”
Experts tell us that assailants who are white are far less likely to be described by the authorities as terrorists. Commenting on the Waco biker gang violence in May, 2015, Sally Kohn, a CNN political commentator, wrote, “One of the most distinct characteristics of white privilege is the privilege to be unique. When white people commit violent acts, they are treated as aberrations, slips described with adjectives that show they are unusual and in no way representative of the broader racial group to which they belong. In fact, in much of the coverage of the Waco shootings, the race of the gang members isn't even mentioned, although pictures of the aftermath show groups of white bikers being held by police. By comparison, the day after Freddie Gray died in the custody of police officers in Baltimore, not only did most coverage mention that Gray was black, but also included a quote from the deputy police commissioner noting Gray was arrested in ‘a high-crime area known to have high narcotic incidents,’ implicitly smearing Gray and the entire community.”
Kohn continued, “Research shows that implicit bias against black and brown people is real, as is white privilege. And studies show that white people greatly overestimate the share of crimes committed by black people. Is it any wonder, given the racialized nature with which we cover crime? According to one study, television stations covered crimes committed by black people in greater proportion than their actual share of criminal acts in the city.”
Amy Julia Harris – who writes for the Center for Investigative Reporting – similarly comments that when the shooter is black, the entire race is guilty; but when the shooter is white, he or she is viewed by the public (and the media) as a ‘troubled lone wolf’.
Worse is the case with Muslims. When the shooter is a Muslim, the entire religion is guilty. When one Muslim person even threatens violence in the United States, it is treated as terrorism of crisis-like proportions, and the person may rot in the jail for decades. The judicial mantra ‘everyone is innocent until proven otherwise’ does not seem to shield them from such allegations. It is patently obvious that the media and society at large treats criminals of color with more severe, less-balanced judgements than they do white criminals.
A 2011 survey by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that Americans are much more willing to say Muslim extremists who commit violence in the name of Islam are really Muslims than they are to say Christian extremists who kill in the name of God are truly Christians. Overall, 83 percent of Americans surveyed said that people who commit violence and claim to be Christians are not really Christian. Interestingly, this poll was conducted not in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 or another terrorist attack in the name of Islam, but in the wake of the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, where Anders Behring Breivik, who is often called a Christian terrorist, killed 77 Norwegians by setting off a bomb and gunning down victims. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News stridently said, “Breivik is not a Christian.” “No one believing in Jesus commits mass murder,” O’Reilly said. “The man might have called himself a Christian on the ’net, but he is certainly not of that faith.”
When it comes to Muslim suspects, I wish Christian apologists like O’Reilly had the impartiality to separate their crime from their religion. What would one call such an attitude but hypocrisy?
Explaining the 2011 survey, Robert P. Jones, the institute’s CEO, said, “Americans gave the answers they gave in the context of a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white Christian man committing terrorism. Even when they had a palpable example of someone who linked violence with his Christian faith, they weren’t willing to buy it at the end of the day.”
That is why, it is not difficult to understand the white American nonchalant attitude towards the latest terrorism committed by a fellow White Christian. In their passionate whitewashing of gruesome acts of terrorism by one of their own race, the Whites duck the fact that White right-wing domestic terrorism is one of the greatest threats to public safety and security in the post 9/11 America. Such a hard fact is, sadly, forbidden in mainstream American public discourse.
In the context of AME terrorism, it may be proper for White Americans to self-introspect and look into the mirror. What is radicalizing white men to commit such acts of domestic terrorism and mass shootings? Is something wrong with the white family? Why are their sons and men so violent? When will white leadership step up and stop white right-wing domestic terrorism? Are Fox News and the right-wing media encouraging violence? Is White American culture pathological? Why is White America so violent? Are there appropriate role models for white men and boys? Could better role models and mentoring help to prevent white men and boys from committing mass shootings and being seduced by right-wing domestic terrorism? Is there something wrong with Christianity? Is Bible the problem for their violence?
If they can’t look into the mirror of self-introspection, either every mass murderer of any race and religion should enjoy the “mentally disturbed” identity (that the mainstream media pampers about white spree killers with), or nobody deserves it. Let’s bury prejudice and call a spade a spade.