Labeling the Charleston massacre

Almost immediately after Dylann Roof was apprehended, the Justice Department announced that it would investigate whether the Charleston massacre was a “hate crime.” I’ll give DOJ a hint. This was a hate crime, both in the dubious way this concept is understood by the law and in ordinary parlance.

The Justice Department now says it’s going to investigate whether the killings were an act of terrorism. This is a less clear cut matter, but on the facts as they have been reported, it may well be that Roof engaged in terrorism.

Killing people because you don’t like their race is a hate crime. Killing people for a political purpose is terrorism.

In the classic case of terrorism, the criminal is either (1) trying to induce a government to do something, e.g., get the U.S. to change its Middle East policy, or (2) trying to demoralize a population into capitulating, fleeing, or cowering — as in Iraq. It is also terrorism, I think, when the violence is intended to curb the exercise of speech.

I haven’t seen an indication that Roof hoped to accomplish any of these objectives. However, there are reports that he wanted to spark a race war. If so, his action would clearly be terrorism, in my opinion.

Even absent this sort of sweeping objective, one could argue that Roof is a terrorist. His selection of an historically symbolic black church suggests that he was interested not just in killing African-Americans, but also in making a political statement.

For me, however, the real question raised by the Justice Department’s investigation is: what difference does it make? South Carolina has laws against premeditated murder and (thankfully) it has the death penalty. Charging Roof with a hate crime under federal law (which doesn’t even carry the death penalty) or with terrorism is unnecessary to see that justice (i.e., Roof’s execution) is carried out.

As I see it, the Justice Department is motivated not by the desire to ensure a just outcome in this case, but by the desire to meddle in a local matter. I agree with Kent Scheidegger:

Unlike the Boston Marathon, this was not a national and international event but rather a local church. Also, there is no reason, at this point, to believe this murderer’s attack was any kind of terrorist attack on the United States as a nation, as Tsarnaev’s was.

There is no state action here, and any effect on interstate commerce is very tenuous. There was a time, half a century ago, when federal criminal law needed to be stretched to cover local cases of violence by individuals with no state action involved because state and local government was unable or unwilling to deliver justice and thus people were denied equal protection of the laws. Those days are long behind us.