Reflections on Charleston and Terrorism

Terrorism has firmly cemented itself as part and parcel of the geopolitical landscape post-9/11. Yet for all the attention that has been brought to it, the difficulties in defining it still remain numerous. This month was marked by a series of events that, on the outset, might seem different but fundamentally share the same characteristics.

The June 17 Massacre of innocent churchgoers was met with shock and condemnation around the world. The brutal attacks at a beach in Tunisia and a factory in France were met with similar emotions; the latter, however, were quickly characterized as terrorism while the former hovered in the nebulous territory of “mass shootings.”

While all events are tragic, understanding and defining them is important. If a young Muslim who professed his hate for Christians had undertaken the events in Charleston, how would the press have reacted? This is not a question of race, but it is a question of motivations.

The fundamental link between the three attacks is quite simple: hate. When hate leads a person, regardless of age, sex, religion, socio-economic background, or citizenship, to kill, this is an act of terrorism. Terrorism is not the sole proprietorship of ISIS, or Al Qaeda, terrorism is the translation of ignorance, hatred, and insanity into violence. Whenever that barrier is crossed, it is our duty to recognize it for what it is.

The Boston Marathon bombings – one of the most recent cases of Islamic extremism terrorism in the United States – led to the deaths of five innocent people. In Charleston, the total was nine. The truth is, hate expressed through violence, no matter the cause, can have horrific effects. Both events are tragic, but one is not accentuated by the origins of the perpetrators. The only thing that matters is that they wanted to commit harm out of a deep feeling of hatred toward others. This characteristic should be the sole variable in our examination of these events.

Ultimately, the reasoning for our collective reticence to label these events as terrorism may stem from a desire to avoid the true issues underpinning these attacks. While it may be easy to label the actions of ideologues from foreign lands with a foreign religion, by doing so we are succumbing to ignorance. Their actions are undoubtedly horrendous, but so too are those carried out by the racist, the xenophobe, or any other kind of human who is driven not by rationality, but by an insatiable feeling of hatred.

Accepting this fact means that we have to face our own problems as societies. In France, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in countless other countries, when atrocities take place, we must recognize that they represent a fundamental flaw in the precious constructions of our communities. While they may be the crazed acts of madmen, they are also a glaring reminder that we are not always the harmonious and inclusive lands that we claim to be. This is a tough realization, but admitting it can help move us all in the right direction.

In the final analysis, if we manage to call these actions what they truly are, we are showing that we recognize our own problems and can take the steps needed to prevent such atrocities from happening. Hatred knows no borders or religion, and so to should our understanding that when it drives people past the brink of madness, their actions all carry the vile mark of terrorism.