On January 10, 2017, serial killer and hate criminal Dylann Roof was sentenced to death for the 2015 murder of nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Upon interrogation, Roof admitted his assault was racially motivated and that he intended to spark a race war in the United States.
Roof endured a lengthy, public trial that concluded with a death sentence on January 10. Despite the savagery of his crimes, Roof was afforded the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution—a testament to the American commitment to equal due process.
Then why shouldn’t we celebrate? Actually, it’s the very fact that Roof enjoyed the protections guaranteed to American citizens.
According to various pieces of legislation, the president has the authority to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, and can try them in secret in front of unaccountable military tribunals. Once a person—even if they are a citizen—is suspected of engaging in terrorism, they effectively lose most of the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
Of course, Dylann Roof wasn’t charged with terrorism. And that’s the problem.
According to the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, terrorism is defined as “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Dylann Roof unlawfully shot and killed nine black people—clearly an act of intimidation—in order to initiate a race war. Considering the above definition, it is difficult to argue that his crimes do not constitute acts of terror.
So, what? As mentioned, a person is capable of losing their Constitutional protections once suspected of terrorism. Because he was charged with committing hate crimes and not terrorism, Dylann Roof received a public trial by jury, was offered legal counsel (though he refused), and was fairly convicted of his crimes.
The case of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki provides a stark contrast. Unlike Roof, the activities of al-Awlaki were considered terrorism, effectively revoking his Constitutional rights, and allowing President Obama to order his execution without even levying formal charges.
Those inconsistencies reveal the deeply entrenched racial problems that continue to afflict our nation.
Let’s conduct a thought experiment and alter the roles of the Charleston church shooting. Imagine Dylann Roof was an American citizen of Middle Eastern descent named Muhammad Hussein. Instead of shooting dead nine black churchgoers, Mr. Hussein killed nine white ones, claiming his intent was to ignite a holy war between Muslims and Christians. It is almost impossible to imagine that in the hypothetical Muhammad Hussein would have received the same treatment as Dylann Roof did.
The fluid application of the term ‘terrorism’ reveals the racial characteristics we attach to it. When a white person commits an act of terror against a black community, they receive fair treatment and equality before the law. When a person of Middle Eastern descent commits the same crime against a white community, they effectively lose their rights and are subjected to brutal treatment.
Of course, Dylann Roof’s sentence is cause for some celebration. His vicious crimes were met with justice and he received an appropriate sentence. That he was afforded the rights and protections that are routinely denied to his non-white counterparts reveals the institutional racist policies that privilege white criminals, an embarrassing aspect of our justice system that is certainly not cause for celebration.
Photo Credit: JASON MICZEK / Reuters file