Since the murders of nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina last week, commentators and reporters in the US have been wrestling with whether to call Dylan Roof a murderer or a terrorist. Some have been quick to label him mentally ill. Others say that to do so discounts the reality of domestic terrorism – especially when directed by white men against African Americans. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham hesitated in calling Roof a terrorist, instead opining that he was “sick” and “twisted” and he couldn’t comprehend what would compel a person to do such a thing.
The struggle to define Roof as a terrorist seems to be most difficult for those who have reserved the term for Muslim extremists or people of color. It is being debated both in the media and in the State whether Roof’s actions should be consider an act of domestic terrorism or a hate crime. National communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ibrahim Hooper, argued that if Roof had been a Muslim or an Arab, he would have immediately been branded a terrorist. The issue of branding people from majority populations as terrorists is not exclusive to the US. In July of 2014, Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered by Israelis after they heard the news of the deaths of three Israeli teenagers who had been kidnapped and killed.
While the Israeli media condemned the attack, there were still mixed representations of the Israeli murderers in the press – some channels referring to them as “extremists” or “murderers” while few dared to use the term “terrorist”. The reason that the press struggled to define the murderers was because they were Jewish. The Israeli government put the speculation to rest by calling the act for what it is, an act of terror. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was quoted saying, “These debased murderers don’t represent the Jewish people or its values, and they must be treated as terrorists. We will not allow Jewish terrorists from our midst to disrupt the fabric of the many different communities in the state of Israel, and to harm innocents just because they are Arabs.” Muhammad’s murderer, Yosef Ben-David, claimed he was “mentally unstable” and therefore unable to testify for a trial, but health officials have deemed him mentally stable and therefore will be required by law to go to trial. Muhammad’s name was added to the official list of victims of terror attacks who are commemorated every year on Memorial Day and his murderers are currently being tried in the Israeli Justice system. When it comes to labels and condemnations, the media has not hesitated to brand murderers as either “terrorists” or “mentally unstable,” but while the media focuses on labels, the family of the victim focuses on justice. “That’s the most important thing to me — not the honor bestowed on my son,” said Muhammad Abu Khdeir’s father, “My son is gone. My son was burned and we burned along with him. I want justice, not honor.”