|Terror attack? Racial Murder? Does it matter?|
It's an argument that makes sense, dovetailing with the obvious disparity every time a white gunman is taken into custody instead of being killed in a hail of police firepower. But I submit that it doesn't really matter. First, if the attack on the church in South Carolina was universally described as an act of terrorism, what would change? It would still be a mass murder driven by racial (as opposed to sectarian) hatreds, enabled by the availability of firearms in America. We would still be a nation torn apart by racism. The media would still deny that it was about racism, substituting the same old dog whistles about mental illness and religious liberty. And there would still be the endless, circular, pointless argument about guns and the societal costs we are willing to bear in order to ensure that US citizens have an unfettered 'right' to amass as deadly an arsenal as they can afford to purchase.
The fact that the media makes this artificial distinction between Muslim and Christian terrorism, between sectarian and racial violence, between brown foreigners who murder and white Americans who do the same points up an important factor in the American narrative. There is a lot of willful delusion in the American identity, and to abandon it would be to face some hard truths about who we are and what we have become. But even beyond that, to describe any attack, planned or executed, as terrorism is pointless when we cannot even agree on what the word means. It's all based on a shifty word game promulgated by the US government in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. We didn't know what might be coming, so we retained the flexibility to call ANYTHING an act of terrorism. To the point where a 12 year old Afghan kid who found his family home under violent attack and threw a grenade to try to defend it is charged with terrorism and war crimes.
Now sure, you and I and everyone else has an opinion about what the word 'terrorism' means. But that doesn't matter. We can't have a useful conversation until we ALL agree on a standardized meaning. And too many people would find that agreement far too constraining in their ability to define enemies and justify killing them. Under the current (lack of) definition, calling Dylann Roof a terrorist might feel good, might contribute to a perfectly reasonable widening of the conversation, but ultimately would crash on the shoals of yet another powerful word rendered pointless by endlessly shifting definitions.
As is so often the case, the real issues here are race and guns. If you were going to rank the root problems in the US today, race, guns and class inequality would be the top three. And they are so deeply rooted in American culture and American identity that there is nothing that can be done to change them, no argument, no law, no edict that can turn the ship of America on to a different course.