Labeling Dylann Roof A "Terrorist" Or "Mentally Ill" Isn't Quite Accurate — But What Should We Be Calling Him Instead?

In the aftermath of the devastating Charleston shooting Thursday night, many people are speculating how we should label Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old who, according to law enforcement, confessed to killing nine people during a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Because the investigation is in its early stages, nobody can speak to his being temporarily insane, for example, or having suffered from a chronic mental illness. The evidence we do have points to him having some incredibly racist ideas about black people and their "effect" on society. But being racist does not make someone mentally ill. The other label many are toying with is "terrorist."

The FBI's definition of domestic terrorism, "involve(s) acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping;" and they occur within U.S. jurisdiction. According to witness accounts, Roof stood up after sitting in the prayer meeting quietly and told the room that he was there "to kill black people," according to CNN.

When someone pleaded with him to stop, the gunman allegedly said: "No, you've raped our women, and you are taking over the country ... I have to do what I have to do," according to CNN. On Friday morning, Roof was charged with nine counts of murder and could face the death penalty, according to CNN. When investigators asked him why he did it, he said he wanted to start a race war.

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It seems clear to some that Roof's actions, given what he said and the size of the tragic massacre, constitute an act of terrorism. Daryl Johnson, who led a team of domestic terror analysts at the Department of Homeland Security from 2004 to 2010, told Mother Jones we must call the murders an act of terrorism, because calling them a hate crime doesn't go far enough. Yes, the crime was a hate crime because it was motivated by race, but Johnson said it was also an act of terrorism because it's intended message of intimidation sought to reach all black people:

He chose a symbolic target, and that is exactly what terrorists do when they want to send a message and instill fear in a population.

Roof even told one survivor that he wouldn't kill her because he wanted her to tell people about what he did, according to CNN. If there was any question about whether he had a message of intimidation and fear for both black people and the U.S. government, then it should be answered by that ominous action.

Why We Should Avoid Lumping Roof Into The "Mentally Ill" Category

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Arthur Chu, writing for Salon, clearly addresses the major problem with speculating that Roof might be or could have been mentally ill. He says that what's interesting about using mental illness when we're talking about mass murderers is that we use it as a way "to discredit their own words." Once mental illness is introduced in a discussion about someone's actions, their actions — and the underlying justifications for them — are viewed as less insidious or threatening, because, hey, they're victim to a mental illness, so they don't know what they're really doing. Chu points out, though, that we don't often do this when we're talking about black shooters. Brushing the issue away like that without actually talking about it is especially problematic in this case, where Roof had a history of being racist.

According to CNN, Roof's roommate said Roof was "big into segregation." There are also photos circulating the internet of Roof wearing a jacket with flags from apartheid-era South Africa and nearby Rhodesia, which was ruled by a white minority until 1980. Once we look at all these facts, it seems that the jump to mental illness is really a search to justify why Roof would be racist, because, goodness, we definitely don't condone racism here in 'Merica. The assumption that Roof is mentally ill does a few things: it hurts the mentally ill, who are actually more likely to be the victims of violent crimes; it's a label that we don't apply equally when the offender isn't white; and, it's something we seem to turn to to avoid confronting a dark reality — that something in society helped perpetuate or legitimize Roof's racist and violent thoughts.

Why We Can't Forget That It's A Hate Crime

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In a op-ed for Gawker, William M. Arkin writes that we shouldn't call Roof's act an act of terrorism for a number of reasons, the strongest being that it would dehumanize the act and turn it into a statistic for the U.S. Department of Justice:

I think the consequence (of calling it terrorism) is real: No matter how demented this shooter might be, by dignifying this law-breaking act as being part of some noble (or even evil) struggle, by suggesting in using the word terrorism that it has some message and purpose, we aid this perpetrator (and others) in justifying the act. We aid them.

He argues that we should reserve the word terrorism for crimes that "our laws are truly inadequate to address." I understand where Arkin is coming from. When we label a crime an act of terrorism, we put it on a pedestal, and then we call its justifications "extremism," and we are often correct in doing so. Even though Roof's crime fits the FBI's definition of terrorism, and it did seek to intimidate in a way greater than a hate crime, are there negative effects of dropping it in the same category as the 9/11 attacks? I think there are, but not because it wasn't a horrible atrocity.

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Rather, the problems with calling Roof's act extremism is that then we're pretending that the thoughts behind his action weren't somehow made legitimate by history and society. According to Mother Jones, there are photos of Roof posing with confederate flag license plates. We can't pretend that that is extremism. Anyone who is from the South knows that the confederate flag is flown proudly and hung across the back of pick-up trucks as a "f*ck you" to the politically correct.

The fact that United States police, who are mostly white, disproportionately kill black people sends a message that black Americans are always doing something wrong. We favor voting policies and minimum wage laws that make poor, minority citizens a separate, lower class. Yes, we always say killing is wrong. But we do all these things that seem to say, "Yes, we're working on our racism, but we're not ready to let it go just yet," and then we want to turn around and call Roof extremist for his views because we, as a country, are ashamed to admit the truth.

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