Calling a Spade a Spade: Why the Charleston Murders Were a Terrorist Act

Plenty of ink has been spilled in the wake of the blood spilled by DSR (whom I shan’t dignify by further promoting his name) Wednesday night at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and while it may be that I likely won’t say anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and likely better, I think it’s worth saying what I have to say, both to add to the general chorus and because I am a white man, which might (might) make other white men marginally likelier to listen, or will at least make it more difficult to discount what I say on the basis of any kind of identity politics.

So, let’s start by calling a spade a spade*: Wednesday night’s murders were an act of racially-motivated terrorism, premeditated, abetted by a culture expressly formulated to preserve and promote violent white supremacy, committed with the express intent of catalyzing a race war.

Harsh language, it’s true. But any honest, good-faith examination of the facts and circumstances leads inevitably to that conclusion, so far as I can tell. Don’t believe me? Let’s unpack, then.

That the killings were murders is, I think, uncontested. DSR went into the church, sat there for an hour while they had their Bible study, then unloaded his weapon at least five times into nine of the people gathered there, none of whom constituted any kind of threat, direct or in-, to his personal safety (DSR was not, in a legal sense, “standing his ground“).

That the murders were racially motivated are attested not only by the now-ubiquitous photo of DSR wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and white supremacist Rhodesia, but by DSR’s words, both in the moment (“I have to. You’re raping our women and taking over our country. You have to go.”) and after, when he admitted as much to police.

That the racially-motivated murderers constituted terrorism is likely to be more contested, because ‘terrorism’ is a loaded word in the contemporary United States. On the one hand it’s about the worst thing a person can be, post 9/11 (way worse than ‘racist’); on the other, it’s term almost exclusively applied to persons of Muslim faith (indeed, way back in 2009, the DHS issued a warning about the threat of domestic terrorism, coming particularly from the right wing: heads, not unpredictably, exploded). But if we take terrorism’s definition on its face, that is, as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal,” it’s much easier to see how these horrifying and despicable acts fall under that rubric. For my own part, I’ll go a little further, and point to Emanuel AME’s history as the first African-American church in the south, founded in response to the racism endemic to the local white congregations, and to its connection, though co-founder Denmark Vesey, with a failed slave uprising, leading to its being burned down and its congregation banned from meeting for decades until it was rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century. I’ll also point out that is pastor Clementa C. Pinkney, and one of the nine murder victims, was a South Carolina State Senator and rising star of the Democratic party. One last piece of evidence is the victim DSR left alive, so people would know why he chose to commit the atrocities he committed.

That these atrocities were premeditated is clear from interviews with DSR’s roommate Dalton Tyler, who said “He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.” That neither Mr. Tyler nor anyone else who heard DSR’s warnings thought to seek help or intervention must (or so one hopes) weigh heavy on his conscience.

That these premeditated atrocities were abetted by a culture formulated to promote and preserve an often violent white supremacy is likely obvious to some, contentious to others. I’ll just point out that the Confederate Battle Flag still flies over the South Carolina State House, that DSR’s father bought him a gun ** for his twenty-first birthday a few months back, and that even though he’d been talking about segregation and starting a race war for months if not longer, no one thought anything of it, because that kind of talk was so unremarkable for where DSR lived.

That these horrifying acts of racially-motivated terrorism were committed in order to catalyze a race war, one DSR thought that he and his white supremacist fellow travelers would win this time, is borne out by explicit statements made by the perpetrator himself, both before and after his arrest.

Having made my case, I’d like to close by addressing one or two canards I’ve seen floating around the discussion these last couple of days.

The first is a not uncommon dodge when it comes to violence committed by white men, that their execrable actions can be explained away by mental illness (or, less commonly, by some failure of society causing them to ‘snap’). For the most part, it’s a dodge, a way of shutting down conversations about uncomfortable topics like racism and rape culture. It locates the impetus soley with the individual, divorcing that individual from the larger social and historical context. You can read an excellent debunking of this particular canard here. As for the present case, DSR’s deliberation and planning, sangfroid in the moment, and his calm escape and fleeing across state lines all gravitate against the mental illness argument.

The next revolves around the question of evil, and while I think it an apt enough descriptor for DSR’s actions I simply do not buy it as a motivation. Outside of hack fiction, no one but no one self-identifies that way, and indeed DSR did not so self-identify. Everyone is the hero of their own story. Everyone does what they do for what they consider good reasons. Indeed, DSR almost backed out at the last minute, because everyone was so nice to him. But he went through with his despicable act of terror, saying “I have to do what I have to do.” Even if he understood what he was about to do was evil, his motivation for doing so was in service of something he thought was good.

There are other canards floating around, the inevitable charlatans glomming on to the tragedy, using it as evidence to further their own particular hobby-horses, or throwing alternative interpretations out, hoping to muddy the waters. I’ve seen it characterized as an attack on Christians, proof we need more guns in churches, and even as punishment for the acceptance of trans people. So far as I’m concerned, none of these are worth answering, and should anyone reading this find any of these suggestions credible, I will say only that I wish you the best of luck in all your endeavors.

*Which phrase I had to look up to make sure it wasn’t racist. It is, in its way, but only against ancient Macedonians.

**There is some uncertainty as to whether the .45 caliber pistol given him for his birthday was the same one he used in Wednesday night’s murders. I’ve also seen it written that he bought the gun himself, with money given him for his birthday, which is even more messed up, since he was facing drug charges that should have precluded that possibility.

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