In the wake of last night’s shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, terrorism expert Brian Phillips asks and answers five questions based on initial reports of the shooter and the massacre.
Is this terrorism?
Yes. There are many definitions of terrorism, but most definitions have four elements in common:
Perpetrated by an individual or non-governmental group
Political, social, or religious motivations;
Intimidating a wider audience than the immediate victims.
By this definition, the massacre in Charleston, S.C. Wednesday was clearly a terrorist act. The violence is evident in the death toll of nine people. The perpetrator apparently was not soldier or official acting on behalf of a government, which would make it a different category of violence.
A racist political motivation seems likely given the shooter targeted black people in a historic African American church. Additional circumstances make this motivation difficult to dispute: the suspected shooter reportedly told victims that they were “taking over our country.” A photo shows the alleged shooter with white supremacist patches on his jacket.
Finally, regarding intimidation of a wider audience, the shooter reportedly left one person alive to spread the message. This was a textbook terrorist act.
Why does it matter if we call it “terrorism”?
The word “terrorism” matters, and not only for theoretical or academic reasons. Terrorism has causes and effects that are distinct from the causes and effects of, say, common crime. If policymakers want to think about how to address terrorism, in addition to typical crime-fighting tactics, how incidents are understood matter. My research shows how government counterterrorism policies such as leadership targeting or leadership removal have distinct effects when used against organized crime. For example, terrorists are affected by the broader political environment, while this is less likely with traditional criminals.
The terrorism label also matters for legal reasons. There are different legal frameworks for terrorism and hate crimes than there are for crimes without such motivations. Our society has decided that terrorism is especially heinous because of the threat to citizens beyond the immediate victims, and therefore it merits additional punishment.
Finally, it is important to use the term “terrorism” when we see it in order to be consistent. Terrorism is already used without hesitation for many non-white – especially Muslim – actors who carry out violence consistent with the definition outlined above. Few media sources use the term for violent actors motivated by, for example, white supremacy or anti-government rage. To avoid the term becoming simply an insult, or worse a racist insult, it should be used whenever the basic criteria apply, or not at all.