A stranger walks into a place of worship, interrupts a congregation and starts arguing with everyone about their interpretation of the scriptures. When asked to leave, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting, killing a few, injuring many, sending shockwaves throughout the city.
This sounds like a scene from a terrorist attack, but the public may have different ideas depending on who the victims and perpetrators are.
On the evening of 17th June 2015, a White male conducted a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, USA. 9 people were killed, including the senior pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney who was also a state senator. The shooter was identified as Dylann Storm Roof and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) considers it a hate crime, but not terrorism. Roof was arrested and charged with nine counts of murder by the State of South Carolina one day after the crime.
For almost an hour before things turned violent, the shooter had participated and stayed at the Bible study class at Charleston Church. He even asked to sit next to Rev Pinckney and sat down next to him. At first, he listened attentively as any newcomer to the church would do. Then, he started raising questions and began to disagree with members of the study group. He then stood up and pulled out a gun from a fanny pack. His first target was 87-year-old Susie Jackson. Jackson’s nephew, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tried to talk him down and asked him why he was attacking churchgoers, to which the shooter responded, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
One image from his Facebook page showed Roof wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of two nations noted for their White supremacist and racial segregation policies, apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. 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!
You may think that Roof is insane, but like many terrorists, he feels that the group he was attacking had insulted his people and his beliefs. He holds the conviction that they are an inferior race that must be punished or eliminated lest they conquer his world. Don’t Muslim terrorists have the same ideas? So in what way is the Charleston Church shooting so different from a terrorist attack?
During the Boston Marathon on 15th April 2013. 2 pressure cooker bombs exploded about 12 seconds 190 m apart at 2:49 pm EDT, near the marathon’s finish line on Boylston Street. They killed 3 people and injured an estimated 264 others. The FBI took over the investigation on 18th April and identified the suspects as Chechen brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. In the “unprecedented” manhunt and subsequent shootout, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead. His younger brother escaped but was arrested a couple of days later. Under interrogation, Dzhokhar alleged that his brother Tamerlan was the mastermind of the bombing. He said that they were motivated by extremist Islamist beliefs and the unnecessary loss of lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were found to be “self-radicalised” and unconnected to any outside terrorist groups. Charged in court, Dzhokhar was found guilty on all charges on 8th April 2015 and sentenced to death. Note that this case has been described as “homegrown terrorism”. Again, it begs the question of why them and why not Roof?
Remember that on 22 July 2011, Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people by setting off a van bomb amid government buildings in Oslo? He later shot dead 69 participants of a Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp on the island of Utøya. While the mass murder Breivik committed did not seem to target a particular group of people, his manifesto (to which he had hoped to draw attention) showed that he was strongly Islamophobic. With a narcissistic personality disorder, he saw it as his duty to prevent the formation of “Eurabia”. For his heinous crime, described by the Norwegian authorities as an act of terrorism, he was charged and sentenced to 21 years preventive detention. Many observers find it inadequate. So what? Have his entire family or community put behind bars or slaughtered like the victims? Sadly, that’s what some people may have in mind if Breivik could somehow be associated with a certain community.
In spite of my highlighting of the double standards, the way in which we define what constitutes terror attacks is actually of secondary importance. Far more important, is our response to it. Hatred breeds hatred. Like a cancer, it spreads from the individual to his community. What if these individuals were not considered “self-redicalised”? Another war on another country listed in the Axis of Evil?
The attacks on innocent African Americans, marathon runners and Norwegians show that the perpetrators harbour a blanket hatred and impose a blanket attack on their target groups. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were costly lessons for self-righteous Americans. Fortunately, the response from authorities have become more measured, zooming in on the individuals instead of communities and countries. Sadly, the moves used to be iron-fisted and aggressive in the wake of 9-11. If only they knew they should have punished the individuals and the organisations responsible – not the entire country, sacrificing thousands of their own people to no avail. If only they knew not to wage a hate crime thinly disguised as a “war on terror” that turns those who used to be with them into people against them. The Charleston Church shooting reveals another weakness. Racism is not perceived to be as destructive as religious extremism even though it should now be obvious that both can trigger terror attacks.
© Chan Joon Yee