Dylann Roof should be tried as a terrorist: America's disturbing double-standard on political violence (and why it matters)

The DOJ has opted against charging the Charleston shooter with terrorism. That's a major mistake

Published July 24, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015.    (AP/Chuck Burton)
Charleston, S.C., shooting suspect Dylann Storm Roof is escorted from the Cleveland County Courthouse in Shelby, N.C., Thursday, June 18, 2015. (AP/Chuck Burton)

On Wednesday, the Department of Justice charged Dylann Storm Roof, the man accused of killing 9 people on June 17 in a historic black church in Charleston, with federal hate crimes.

But not terrorism charges.

In a press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained that the DOJ indicted Roof with multiple counts of hate crimes because South Carolina doesn't have a hate crimes statute. (The indictment includes a certification from Lynch stating that such prosecution "is necessary to secure substantial justice.") Effectively, then, the decision to charge Roof with federal crimes ostensibly stems from the government's view it needed to exact punishment for Roof's particular motivations -- the desire to "increase racial tensions" and his belief in white supremacy. Roof was also charged with separate hate crimes for using guns to prevent the free exercise of religion. The federal charges may bring the death penalty.

That is, the government felt the need to punish Roof's actions because they were allegedly motivated by a desire to violently change the way our country is governed, to return to segregation, if not worse.

That fits the definition of terrorism, as Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly pointed out at the press conference. But unlike a long line of young Muslim men whose weapons -- including guns -- came from the FBI and who never killed anyone, Roof will not be charged as a terrorist.

But, Lynch suggested several times, hate crimes charges are just as good. "As you know, there is no specific domestic terrorism statute. However, hate crimes, as I have stated before, are the original domestic terrorism." She insisted that DOJ and FBI take domestic crimes seriously. "People may feel because we have such a strong emphasis on terrorism matters since 9/11 that when we talk about matters and do not use that terminology that we do not consider these crimes as serious." But that's not correct, Lynch insisted. "This should in no way signify that this particular murder or any federal crime is of any lesser significance."

Except it is, by all appearances.

When asked, Lynch refused to comment on how DOJ is allocating resources, but reporting on the increase in terrorism analysts since 9/11 suggests the FBI has dedicated large amounts of new resources to fighting Islamic terrorism, domestically and abroad. In addition, there are a number of spying tools that are tied solely to international terrorism -- but DOJ has managed to define, in secret, domestic terrorism espoused by Muslims in the U.S. as international terrorism. That means FBI has far more tools to dedicate to finding tweets posted by Muslims, and fewer to find the manifesto Roof wrote speaking of having "the bravery to take it to the real world" against blacks and even Jews.

Perhaps most importantly, because of vastly expanded post-9/11 information sharing, local law enforcement offices have been deputized in the hunt for Muslim terrorists, receiving intelligence obtained through those additional spying tools and sharing tips back up with the FBI. By contrast, as one after another confrontation makes clear -- most recently the video of a white Texas trooper escalating a traffic stop with African American woman Sandra Bland that ultimately ended in her death, purportedly by suicide -- too many white local cops tend to prey on African Americans themselves rather than  the police who target African Americans for their race.

(In her press conference today, Attorney General Lynch explained that FBI is monitoring the investigation into Bland's death, but is not yet conducting its own investigation.)

Finally, the FBI has an incentive to call Roof's attack something different, as it makes a big deal of its success in preventing "terrorist" attacks. If the Charleston attack was terrorism, it means FBI missed a terrorist plotting while tracking a bunch of Muslims who might not have acted without FBI incitement. That would be all the worse as the FBI might have stopped Roof during the background check conducted before he bought the murder weapon, if not for some confusion on a prior charge.

Whatever we call crimes targeting African Americans by terrorists -- allegedly including Roof -- who want to reinstitutionalize white supremacy, resources matter. That means these names matter, because the resources are tied to that word, "terrorism."

I'm certainly not saying we should expand the already over-broad domestic dragnet to include white supremacists espousing ugly speech (but neither should hateful speech from Muslims be sufficient for a material support for terrorism charge, as it currently is). Yet as one after another white cop kills or leads to the death of unarmed African Americans, we have to ensure that we call like crimes by like names to emphasize the importance of protecting all Americans. DOJ under Eric Holder was superb at policing civil rights violations, and there's no reason to believe that will change under DOJ's second African American Attorney General, Loretta Lynch.

But hate crimes brought with the assistance of DOJ's Civil Rights division (as these were) are not the same as terrorist crimes brought by national security prosecutors, nor are they as easy to prosecute. If our nation can't keep African Americans worshipping in church safe, than we're not delivering national security.

By Marcy Wheeler

Marcy Wheeler writes at EmptyWheel.net and is the author of "Anatomy of Deceit."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Charleston Department Of Justice Dylann Roof Loretta Lynch Racism Terrorism White Supremacy