James Comey, director of the bloated and corrupt, deeply dishonest and deadly criminal enterprise known as the FBI, is usually quick-on-the-draw when it comes to labeling acts of violence “terrorism”—after all he has an annual $3.3 billion dollar budget to counter terror—but he hesitated in the case of Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine African-Americans in the Charleston Emanuel AME church on June 17. Why?
It was “horrific,” he acknowledged, but “terrorism” is “more of a political act and…I don’t see it as a political act.”
The perpetrator himself saw it as a calculated and willful political act, painted his self-portrait in the posture of a partisan actor on an explicitly political mission; his “manifesto” is as thoroughly articulated a political document, filled with apocalyptic fantasies and white supremacist day-dreams, as you’re likely to find.
The farce of Comey’s ambiguity is telling: it highlights the fuzziness of the word itself, but more important it reveals the selective and hypocritical deployment of “terrorist/terrorism” as propaganda by the paid agents of the ruling class. “Terrorism” is a mindless term of art for “the stuff the powerful don’t like.” Comey’s FBI has labeled acts of vandalism “terrorism,” including breaking windows, hammering on nuclear silos, disabling tractors in ancient forests or airplanes set to bomb civilians, freeing caged animals, and more. As a founding member of the Weather Underground in 1970, I know from close experience just how sweeping—and sticky—that label can become.
Having myself been called (falsely) an “unrepentant domestic terrorist” for decades now, I’m reluctant to use the word at all—it flows so automatically into the rushing propaganda stream unleashed by the so-called “war on terror,” screaming insistently for permanent war, more US aggression, more assassinations and torture, more ethnically-based surveillance and repression, more suspicion and fear, more targeting of Arabs and Muslims. But I’ll make an exception here: Dylan Roof is a white supremacist and a terrorist, his actions part of a long legacy of terrorism carried out against captured Africans, and later the descendants of formerly enslaved people.
What is terrorism for real, and why is this guy exhibit one?
Nicholas Lemann attempted a definition of “terrorism” a couple of years ago in the New Yorker. He claimed that the expert consensus included a few common traits: terrorists have political or ideological objectives and they intend to spread fear and panic as they intimidate an audience larger than their immediate victims. Good enough, but then: terrorists are non-state actors, he claimed, which conveniently exempts Russia’s brutality in Chechnya, Iraq’s crushing of the Kurds, the US bombing of villages in Vietnam, and countless other horrors and atrocities throughout history designed to cause fear and panic toward a political goal. Terrorists, he continued, target ordinary citizens, or, when they kill soldiers, their attacks don’t take place on the field of battle. That’s an expedient tautology: whenever and wherever the US military marches in, the space becomes, by definition, a “field of battle;” if the US decides to pound a village to dust—as in, say, Fallujah—that’s a field of battle, but if a villager kills a US soldier in the exact same spot the day before the invasion commences, that’s “terrorism.”
In the interest of consistency and fairness let’s define “terrorism” more precisely: the use of violence intended to intimidate a civilian population in order to accomplish some specified political end-point. If we focus on the use of coercive violence we can see clearly that terrorism can be the work of a religious cult, an individual warrior, a political sect, a group of zealots, or the state itself. And the state throughout history takes first prize.
The history of organized terror against African-Americans begins with the capture and kidnapping of Africans, tortured and transported to the Americas as chattel, none of them willing volunteers on the Middle Passage. This massive crime against humanity was state-sanctioned, legal terror.
Enslaved people ran away and resisted in a thousand ways, and after hundreds of years legal slavery was abolished. A decades-long campaign of terror against free Blacks began immediately—pogroms, arson, displacement, false arrests and imprisonment, night-riders, and thousands of public-spectacle lynchings. White gangs rampaged on a whim through African-American communities in Chicago, St. Louis, Tulsa, Rosewood, and hundreds of other places, and the message was clear: white supremacy would police the racial boundaries and punish any transgression.
Dylann Roof’s murderous outburst must be located in that long history of organized violence against African-Americans to accomplish a political goal: the maintenance of white supremacy. The legacy continues, and the resistance must be mobilized and energized. Part of that resistance is to educate and organize around abolishing the whole structure of the war on terror, including the vague language that points toward indistinct enemies. There is no good reason to call for the state to pursue a terrorist enhancement charge against the terrorist Dylann Roof. He should and will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And we should continue to oppose endless war, the construction of a Prison Nation, mass incarceration, the militarization of the police and the serial murder of Black people, surveillance and repression.
This could be a moment of unusual clarity for all of us.