The Charleston Massacre is not Terrorism

At the moment there are few details about the massacre of nine people in a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. A white gunman in his early 20s entered the church and opened fire. Police are calling the shooting a hate crime.

The routine murder of black people in this country only happens due to the historical devaluing of black life, the legal sanction behind much of that killing, and the impunity all too often granted to the murderers. This is precisely why we need #BlackLivesMatter.

There are many insisting that the shooting is an act of terrorism. The claim is premised on the belief that there is some objective standard by which an act of violence can be characterised as terrorism but, due to the exigencies of the War on Terror and white supremacy, the label is only applied to Muslims.

There is an obvious double standard in how the word “terrorism” is only applied to Muslims and in the relative protection accorded to white criminality. As Glenn Greenwald wrote in 2010:

Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and most manipulated word in the American political lexicon.  The term now has virtually nothing to do with the act itself and everything to do with the identity of the actor, especially his or her religious identity.  It has really come to mean:  ”a Muslim who fights against or even expresses hostility towards the United States, Israel and their allies.”  That’s why all of this confusion and doubt arose … over whether a person who perpetrated a classic act of Terrorism should, in fact, be called a Terrorist:  he’s not a Muslim and isn’t acting on behalf of standard Muslim grievances against the U.S. or Israel, and thus does not fit the “definition.”

Despite this double standard in the application of the “terrorism” label it is disconcerting to see otherwise progressive people insist on expanding its scope. I can understand the motivation: to combat Islamophobia by exposing terrorism as not restricted to Muslims and breaching the sanctity of whiteness. Even still, what the demand for a more expansive (and supposedly objective) application of the “terrorism” is doing is calling on the state to undertake more punitive measures. The focus of our fight should be on reducing the capacities of the carceral state, not to further empower it.

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