Much to the chagrin of authority figures throughout my life, "because I said so" has never struck me as an adequate explanation for the big whys of this world. This need for the why led me to major in philosophy, to study how the historical trajectory of ideas shapes everything in our present, including the very language we use to describe our experiences and understand them. I obsess over words, in particular how words used by the media and those in positions of power influence the conversations of our culture at large, and often inadvertently serve as an indictment of it. Perhaps because of this, one thing that has consistently bothered me about the narrative surrounding Dylann Roof is that he has rarely been called what he is: a terrorist. Given that the conversation about terrorism in our country is increasingly focused almost exclusively on Muslims, maybe we need to ask why so many of us are hesitant to call white extremists the T-word.
On February 6, the White House released a list of 78 terrorist attacks that they felt were underreported, though some included dominated the news cycle — the November 2015 Paris attacks, the San Bernardino shootings, the Pulse nightclub massacre. Glaringly missing was Emanuel AME. The following day, Republican Rep. Sean Duffy appeared on CNN's "New Day," where host Alisyn Camerota began by questioning Trump's assertion that media does not cover terrorist attacks. When asked why President Trump failed to mention the recent attack in Quebec in which a right-wing, anti-immigrant white man shot and killed six Muslim men at a mosque while they were praying, Duffy described the attack as a "one off," saying that "there is a difference" between attacks committed by white extremists versus those by Muslims. Duffy went on to say that "good things" came from the the terrorist attack on Emanuel AME, citing the removal of the Confederate flag from our statehouse, an act of political expediency that should not have required the loss of nine profoundly loved, good people. It was also during this interview that Camerota asked perhaps the most pressing question relating to white extremism: "Why do you think that when it's a white terrorist, it's an isolated incident?"
Roof admitted to first being exposed to white supremacist ideology online via the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose former webmaster, Kyle Rogers, served on the Dorchester County Republican Party's Executive Committee from April 2013 until at least June 25, 2015, as reported by the Summerville Journal Scene. (Dorchester County Republican Party chairman Tim Higgins could not be reached via email for comment relating to Rogers's current executive committee status.) Roof was almost immediately cast as some kind of outlier, a loner, instead of part of a white nationalist extremist faction; however, when a Muslim terrorist is self-radicalized online, media and law enforcement almost immediately seek to find a connection to a larger terror cell or network. What's the difference?
We need to question the societal implications of evaluating violent attacks committed by whites on a case-by-case basis, seeking to understand the attacker on a individual level based on their personal history and mental health, versus analyzing the violent actions of non-whites, particularly non-white Muslims, on a systematic level. We regularly label non-Christian, non-white US citizens terrorists, but rarely Christian white citizens. Do we consider the former less American? What does this say about us as a nation?
A study by George Washington University's Program on Extremism found that between 2012 and 2016, the Twitter accounts of white nationalist movements gained more than 22,000 followers, roughly a 600 percent increase, and were far less likely to be subject to account suspension than those of ISIS. White nationalism is on the rise, and to not to label white extremists terrorists perpetuates their ideology. By vilifying Muslims and wrongly portraying their entire culture as repressive, evil, against everything we stand for as Americans, are we not implicitly furthering the agenda of those like Dylann Roof, who believe that multiculturalism is destroying our country, who fail to recognize the individual humanity of people with black or brown skin, who see everything from an us-versus-them perspective, who hate anyone who is different from them? The religion, race, and nationality of violent extremists should not be the primary determining factors as to whether we label them terrorists because their goal is ultimately the same: to destroy the core values of our nation — liberty, equality, diversity — which, though we have historically not lived up to them, are ideals we must continue to strive for, perhaps more now than ever.