Nine people were killed by Dylann Storm Roof in Charleston’s historic black church and the debate about how to categorize his actions is fierce. Is it domestic terrorism or mass murder? Is it a case of drug-induced mental illness or a hate crime? The debate embraces some of the most controversial issues of our time: guns, race, alienated young men, and the confederate flag. The question before us should not be which of the labels and issues are relevant and correct. Rather, the question should be how to address the volatile mix now surfacing in terrifying blasts with increasing frequency.
The term “domestic terrorism” first entered my vocabulary with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Less than a year later, I moved to Oklahoma to research the causes behind the bombing, becoming the community/media liaison for Tulsa’s Jewish Federation. My job required that I serve on the executive committee of Oklahoma’s Say No To Hate Coalition. Technically, our focus was hate crimes, particularly violent crimes against black churches. So frequent were such attacks that we had a pre-written press release ready for the media at a moment’s notice. Yet, the larger environment in which these attacks were fermented cannot, and should not, be dismissed.
The countryside was dotted with groups that espoused varying degrees of hatred, violence, and anarchy. There were traditional White Supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the more recent Christian Identity Church. Neo-Nazis recruited young skin-heads and built compounds as did the heavily-armed white supremacists of Elohim City. Despite the press these groups received, it was the rise of smaller groups and the lone wolf phenomenon that most concerned my FBI contacts. While Timothy McVeigh stands out as poster child for the under-the radar crowd, he was not alone.
The FBI, the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), and and the gangs task force of local law enforcement trained me in defensive measure for the Jewish Federation complex. They provided information on these small groups and individuals. There was a self-appointed pastor in Muskogee who claimed he was anointed to wipe out America’s undesirables. There were numerous cult-like groups recruiting young men and younger women to hand out fliers announcing that Blacks and Jews were subhuman and should be destroyed. A local socialite sporting a swastika tattoo ran a neo-Nazi telephone hot line out of her home.
Being armed was a must for all parties, large and small. I even had to ask the IRS to investigate one of its own agents who was rumored to head a paramilitary group. The self-declared militia was seen conducting training exercises with AK47s in a nearby wooded area. While there was a lull in the violence as time passed, the volatile combination of hate, terror, and violence did not go away. Today, the mixture is on steroids, or at least very sophisticated pharmaceuticals.
The internet has enabled terrorists, conspiracy theorists, and hate groups to blend in ways not seen in the past. First, their online reach can be local, national and international. The result, as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently reported, that a domestic terror attack or foiled plot occurred every 34 days over the last six years. The SPLC notes that one of largest white supremacist sites, Stormfront, has 300,000 registered users, two-thirds of whom are Americans. Those site users are responsible for 100 murders in the past 5 years.
Roof is a lone wolf, but he is not alone. The SPLC notes that Roof’s 2,000-word manifesto is typical of alienated youth fired up by online sites. In Roof’s case, the site was the Council of Conservative Citizens. Roof considers himself a brave soldier in the cause of white nationalism, defending against world-wide white genocide.
Don’t look for remorse in Roof for murdering nine people in the midst of bible study in Charleston’s historic black church. There is none, just as there is no remorse in the recruits of ISIS and other international terrorist groups. Do not make the mistake of thinking that this mass murder was an isolated incident, or an accident. Such an assumption implies that hasn’t happened in the past and won’t happen again in the future. Above all, don’t dismiss mass murder in a hate crime as mental illness. The labels of “mentally ill” and “drug-induced” cure nothing, and enable recruitment to remain under the public’s radar.
We must recognize that there is, and always has been, a dark underbelly of American dream. Those who feel their lives are disposable and without hope have many ways to be destructive in an open society. We see massive shootings in movie theaters, on college campuses, and in shopping malls. When the violence is coupled with racial and religious hatred, we see this terror directed against churches, mosques, and temples and against African Americans, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others perceived as different. Roof’s terrorist action in Charleston should be a wake up call for the entire country.
It will take a major effort in multiple sectors of our society to deal with the violent elements in our midst. These are domestic terrorists. If we are not going to develop into a society hunkered down in our homes, armed to the teeth to protect ourselves, we need fundamental change in our thinking. We must look more closely on what is happening to the alienated, desperate and hopeless among us. They are easy targets for recruitment and spread hatred as if it were a toxic chemical spill.
Consider hate crimes and domestic terrorism as sides of the same coin. We desperately need to organize and address the multiple elements of both. Understand what is happening online. Be aware of the sites that are spewing out the hatred and conspiracy theories that draw in the alienated. Block their efforts to recruit those most vulnerable among us. Support programs that address the potential recruits whether based in religious institutions, community centers, nonprofit organizations, or government agencies. Kudos to the sports figures and celebrities who are bold and outspoken when they spotlight these efforts. Now, in this period leading up to a presidential election, we should demand that our politicians be as bold when they take the spotlight.