When the home-grown terrorists are white

The sideshow debate has started in the wake of last night’s killings of nine black people in a church in South Carolina at the hands of a young, white man: The debate over how to classify the horror. Was it a “hate” crime. Is this “terrorism”?

“We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” Gov. Nikki Haley said.

Sure we will. We already do. The only mystery is why we’re reluctant to call it what it is.

“The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley said. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice. … This is one hateful person.”


In the hours after Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney’s death, a white supremacist group posted on his Facebook page, “Maybe one of my supporters in South Carolina can run for your seat. You don’t need it anymore.”

Before Islamic radicals drove planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the most dangerous terror threat to the nation, the FBI warned, was the white supremacist.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the threat — the hate — didn’t disappear; only our attention to it. Americans have worried more about home-grown jihadists.

Coincidentally, just two days ago, Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and David Schanzer, director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University, issued a warning in their New York Times op-ed.

An officer from a large metropolitan area said that “militias, neo-Nazis and sovereign citizens” are the biggest threat we face in regard to extremism. One officer explained that he ranked the right-wing threat higher because “it is an emerging threat that we don’t have as good of a grip on, even with our intelligence unit, as we do with the Al Shabab/Al Qaeda issue, which we have been dealing with for some time.”

An officer on the West Coast explained that the “sovereign citizen” anti-government threat has “really taken off,” whereas terrorism by American Muslim is something “we just haven’t experienced yet.”

Last year, for example, a man who identified with the sovereign citizen movement — which claims not to recognize the authority of federal or local government — attacked a courthouse in Forsyth County, Ga., firing an assault rifle at police officers and trying to cover his approach with tear gas and smoke grenades.

The suspect was killed by the police, who returned fire. In Nevada, anti-government militants reportedly walked up to and shot two police officers at a restaurant, then placed a “Don’t tread on me” flag on their bodies. An anti-government extremist in Pennsylvania was arrested on suspicion of shooting two state troopers, killing one of them, before leading authorities on a 48-day manhunt.

A right-wing militant in Texas declared a “revolution” and was arrested on suspicion of attempting to rob an armored car in order to buy weapons and explosives and attack law enforcement. These individuals on the fringes of right-wing politics increasingly worry law enforcement officials.

After a white man went on a rampage at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee in 2012, Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic considered why we react differently to the notion of white terrorism.

It ought to be self-evident that non-Muslims perpetrate terrorist attacks, and that a vanishingly small percentage of Muslims are terrorists, but those two truths aren’t widely appreciated in America.

That doesn’t mean they won’t reassert themselves, for terrorist attacks have always been with us; the tactic has never been exclusive to a single ideology for very long; and the power the state marshals against one sort of terrorist is sure to be first to hand when another sort strikes.

Anxiety over this possibility was evident early in Obama’s term, when a Homeland Security report on right-wing extremism was roundly denounced by conservative bloggers. They know as well as anyone that you don’t want to wind up in a class whose rights are determined by the Office of Legal Counsel.

Spencer Ackerman just did a followup with that report’s author. Whatever you think of the document, its warning against the possibility of a disgruntled military veteran perpetrating right-wing extremist violence is vindicated by reports from Wisconsin.

It may well turn out that the massacre last night was over nothing more than a parking space, but it’s unlikely; the shooter spent more than an hour inside the church before pulling out his gun, according to authorities.

A witness told NBC that the shooter reloaded five different times and told a survivor, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

“Any one of us might die in a mass murder,” Friedersdorf writes this morning. “But today, as the nation mourns the victims of Charleston and awaits details about the perpetrator of the attack, black Americans will be most awake to the reality that there are bigots who want to see them dead. What they’re owed by their fellow Americans is vocal solidarity, so that they’re as awake to the depth and breadth of the belief that black lives matter.”

  • MrE85

    The Southern Poverty Law Center, along with other organizations, keeps an eye on these homegrown wackos. There seems to have been a sharp increase in their activities and organization since Obama’s election. This seems to be their reaction to his Presidency, not any lack of effort on his part.

  • John

    I don’t know where to start. Before I think of this as a failure of people (i.e. DHS, FBI, etc.) to notice and stop something before it started, I need to wait. There’s definitely a serious problem with “homegrown” terrorism – always has been. I want to know if the person doing the shooting was associated closely with any groups, or if he was more or less a “lone nut,” acting out.

    For me, there’s a clear difference. Because of the way our systems are set up, the lone nut is going to be tremendously hard to stop. Groups can be infiltrated and monitored by their nature (i.e. they have to communicate to remain a group). One guy with some bad ideas is going to be much more difficult to track and stop. As was noted by Judge Frank yesterday, on a different topic, we can’t lock people up for what they might do.

    At any rate, I’m not feeling very good about the world this morning, and I’m struggling to put things in context or figure out how to express why.

    • Lone nuts have a habit of becoming martyred heroes. Will be fascinating to watch how he’s characterized in the forthcoming coverage.

      But the effect is the same — lone or affiliated — a segment of society is terrorized merely because of their perceived differences.

      • MrE85

        If it were up to me, these “lone nuts” would never be identified and would live the rest of their miserable lives (provided they are taken alive) in complete isolation and anonymity.

        • Veronica

          Hard to do that when he’s still on the loose.

          • MrE85

            If Twitter is to be believed (and in cases like this, you are wise to be wary) the suspect has been captured.

          • Mrs E85 Squared

            Hardware stores are loaded with them.

        • Mrs E85 Squared

          And what flavor of hatred would your comment and the support stem from? Mr E85, you would be surprised to find how many supremacists hold high ranking positions and are well paid for what they do. They are among our extroverted population in our society and well-like for the words they speak but not the reality of who they are.

          • Mr. E85 is Bob Moffitt. Who are you?

          • Mrs E85 Squared

            real names Bob so that we can be cornered and mutilated, right? what does my real name have to do with the point I am making which is true and you know it.

          • First names are fine. We’ve been over this plenty of times. It’s not a debate. If you don’t want to post by the rules (Bob is grandfathered and probably the most well-known poster in the Twin Cities), that’s your choice but your comments will be deleted. You don’t get to appropriate someone else’s username.

          • Mrs E85 Squared

            I have had so many names, years of names on your blog even when I have been a registered member, regardless of the content of my posting, once it is determined ‘who’ I am, my posts get deleted. Exclusion Bob, which is part of our problem we are discussing here. Right?
            What would it matter who I am provided I am attacking any poster?

          • Mrs E85 Squared

            NOT attacking.

          • Mrs E85 Squared

            I have a problem with lots of these posts as they use the term wacko, nutcase, lone wolf, (and really when it all boils down to the term lone wolf isn’t it really about exclusion?) when they know that the individual is mentally ill. What if we called our coworkers diagnosed with depression, bipolar. ect., what if we called them ‘wackos’ instead?
            Maybe the problem stems from the Village and the fabric of their consciesnous?

      • John

        I’ll be watching the media coverage relatively closely, because so much of everything of this nature that happens has so much racial tension in it. The way the discussion/portrayal of the event and aftermath happens becomes even more interesting to me than the event itself.

    • jon

      I take solace in the fact that at any time two people who are crazy enough and want to cause a large enough panic could get a rifle, an old car, and do a beltway sniper style terror run…
      And yet those types of attacks rarely happen…

      It’s not because of the difficulty in getting a rifle (because let’s face it you can buy one of those fairly easily in a number of states), and it’s not because of the difficulty in getting a beater of a car.
      The only other thing left is two people who will premeditate random murders, and carry them out… That must be something that is hard to come by since these attacks don’t happen with any regular frequency…

      • BReynolds33

        Indeed, that one specific style of random murder doesn’t happen very often. Take solace in that.

        Now, let’s talk about the other types of random murder that occur every single day, including mass murder and those murders that happen randomly in the streets everyday.

        • jon

          wikipedia says US murder rate is 4.7 per 100,000 people per year.

          Not numbers to be proud of by any means, but assuming a 1 murder to victim ratio (no serial killers, no multiple homicides) that still means that only 0.0047% of people kill other people.

          Since we know there are serial killers, and murders who kill more than one person, that number drops.

          I’m not saying we should all be excited that less than 5 out of every 100,000 people are kill another person…. but that also means that at least 99,995 people don’t kill anyone each year, people willing to commit murder are hard to come by, that’s a good thing.

          Oh, and those numbers are total murders, not just random ones… More people are murdered by people previously known to them than strangers, only some ~25% of murders happen where the victim was a stranger (some sampling basis because in cases that go unsolved there could be a higher incident of strangers involved)…

          • I’ve totally lost track of what the discussion is about now.

          • KTN

            Well that’s easy – it is about pedantic parsing of numbers instead of actually showing some humanity about the tragic loss of 9 innocent people by the hand of a terrorist with a gun.

        • Postal Customer

          Most murders are not random.

  • Anna

    I can’t help but feel this is an outgrowth of the 24/7 news cycle, Facebook, Twitter, etc. With instantaneous communication there is no chance to take a step back and process. It’s in your face all the time.

    Back in the day, and I’m telling my age here, the TV networks and local stations shut off at 12 midnight. You had to wait until the following morning to “get the rest of the story”, to quote popular radio personality, Paul Harvey.

    Or is it that somewhere back in the family tree there was a bad recessive gene that suddenly reappears in the current generation? Great, great, great grandpa had a really wild streak, the relatives say. He never could stay put in one place very long.

    For a person who has that “bad” gene with a propensity for violence, the environment they live in can cause these tendencies to surface with terrible consequences for whomever the “bad” guy has in their sights. It’s the proverbial “Nature vs. Nurture” debate.

    It could have been any black church in South Charleston on a Wednesday night having prayer service. These innocent victims were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Juxtaposition this story with the headline story from Time magazine on the lack of faith in established religious organizations, especially in the Protestant religions, which is at its lowest point ever.

    Church attendance provided stability for millions of Americans until recently. It gave us a conscience and a sense of responsibility for our fellow man. It’s time to stop being “bystanders” and start doing what’s right and just and that means looking out for the kid in class or the co-worker at work who seems “different” or left out.

    You just might save a life.

    • Mrs E85 Squared

      “Church attendance provided stability for millions of Americans until recently. It gave us a conscience and a sense of responsibility for our fellow man. ”
      Thank god there are some people who are kind for the sake of being kind because it is natural and don’t need a community, a religion or structure to give them a reason.

  • crystals

    “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” – James Baldwin

    • kennedy

      Yes, that’s exactly what we need to help reduce the tendency toward violence. More rage.

      • crystals

        Interesting that you assume rage will lead to violence, particularly in this context. Rage can just be a feeling; people can just be angry – and I believe people have every right to be angry – without losing control and becoming violent.

        In this context, maybe white people should do some work to understand and act on why the black community feels in a constant state of rage instead of just telling black people to calm down and stay peaceful.

        • Al

          Agreed–we ALL, regardless of race, MUST work to understand and act on the things that create inequity and disparities. Racial injustice in America isn’t just a Black issue–it’s an issue that belongs to all of us, and must be rectified by all of us.

        • kennedy

          Rage is not unique to the black community. In this case, a white man’s rage twisted his reality and resulted in a terrorist attack on a church full of people.

          Rage does nothing but taint how one sees the world. And a lack of rage does not equate with being passive. Conversation does things. Activism does things. Civil disobedience does things. Treating other people with respect does things.

          Act with passion and compassion, not rage.

  • Veronica

    I can’t help but think that the people who don’t think of this as a hate crime, or can’t understand the full scope of it are clueless about the history of racial violence beyond the stuff they learned in elementary school. Lynchings? Bombing churches? Any of that ring a bell? If it’s not clear, we are seeing a resurgence of the racial violence of the past.

  • Mitch Berg

    Forget, for a moment, that we have no idea what drove this nutcase. Forget, also, for a moment the media’s long history of ascribing motives of the whack-du-jour to the white/conservative/christian boogeyman between the Hudson and the Sierra Madre, only to grow very quiet when it turns out the perp either was driven by fevered “progressivism” or, in the case of Holmes and Laughner, pure insanity.

    Let’s say the perp in this case specially intended to be a “terrorist” – to achieve a political end by terrorizing a target community.

    Is he a terrorist who happens to be white? Or is he a “white terrorist?”

    Is there a “white” ideology, at all? Other than a “white supremacist” boogeyman that motivates maybe one in a thousand of our fellow honkies, and motivates fewer still to violence?

    This story smacks of trying to pound a square factual peg into a round narrative hole.

    • ” “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.””

      High school classmate:

      “I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs,” he said. “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”

      Put the hammer down, Mitch.

      Sure, he’s obviously an outcast and not representative of the majority of those with whom he might align politically or racially or otherwise.

      You know, maybe like those Somali teens being held that are terrorists over in Mpls?

      That’s pretty much the way it is with extremists on the fringe.

      • Mitch Berg

        Right. It’s a hate crime, driven by racism. Got that.

        The question isn’t about the crime. It’s about how you characterize it. You think there’s no difference between a lone, likely mentally ill, person acting out a racist fantasy – like Jared Loughner or James Holmes, only motivated by race – and terrorism, a calculated campaign by one group to get their way via focused terror?

        I’m not the one with the hammer, here, Bob.

        Tell you what – if (I say *when*) this creep turns out to be a mentally-ill lone wolf with a grudge against black people, howzabout we revisit this?

        • There is terrorism and there are terrorists. You’re trying to say the two are one in the same.

          I would suggest that an avenue to being a terrorist is to be the lone, mentally ill, person with a desire to act out a fantasy.

          I’m told that those in the Somali community, for example, who are mostly likely to be recruited terrorists are exactly the type of person you describe in your attempt to draw a distinction .

          I think the article highlighted above makes a great point that, so far, has been mirrored in the conversation in this space. We are most likely NOT to see a terrorist if the terrorist looks like us or if we can identify with elements of him her.

          We are most likely to be afraid — and to draw distinctions — if the person appears different than we do.

          • My guess is that much of what motivates individuals that we dismiss as acting alone have found that some of the public dialogue resonates, creating the illusion — I hope it’s an illusion, but perhaps not — that they are not alone, that they are leading a charge of like minded individuals.

          • Jeff

            Just off the top of my head I can think of several instances of this thinking. If I recall Timothy McVeigh believed he was triggering an anti-government revolution. John Brown (debatable terrorist) thought the slaves would rise up if he sparked the revolution. But I think it takes a certain person.

          • Mitch Berg


            “If I recall Timothy McVeigh believed he was triggering an anti-government revolution”

            And you’ll recall what ensued.


            Yes, a lone wolf *can* lead a revolution; Hitler’s “Bierhalleputsch” led indirectly to 1933.

            But after McVeigh, and Eric Rudolph, you got…nothing. No significant sympathetic attacks. No copycats. Bupkes.

            Indeed, I can only recall one “white terrorist” whose story generated a genuine, organic groundswell of sympathy and activism in the community; Kathleen Soliah.


            “much of what motivates individuals that we dismiss as acting alone have found that some of the public dialogue resonates, creating the illusion…hat they are not alone”

            I’m not going to say that there isn’t a huge well of “white” militancy brewing out there. It’s just that, other than the occasional delusional whacko, there’s no actual empirical evidence they exist in any significant numbers, or any significant organization.

            Lone whackoes – whether motivated by “white power” or “Jodie Foster” – will always be with us. Continuing to say that they mean Something Deeper without any actual evidence is either iffy reporting or wishful thinking.

            “This morning I woke up to a Facebook post from a guy I went to high school with. it was a picture of Dolezal on a box labeled “Ain’t Jemima.””

            Well, in my capacity as spokesguy for all white conservative males, I repudiate him.

          • Mitch Berg

            “You’re trying to say the two are one in the same”

            Not true. I’m pretty sure we’re talking past each other on this.

            “I think the article highlighted above makes a great point that, so far, has been mirrored in the conversation in this space…We are most likely to be afraid — and to draw distinctions — if the person appears different than we do”

            Sure. Everyone in the world is a “we-ist”.

            Example that should be near and dear to the Crocus Hill set: think of the years that this administration has been predicting a wave of “white terror” from tax protesters, second amendment supporters, pro-lifers, Tenthers, Tea Partiers, veterans, and probably Limbaugh fans for all I know – people like me, now that you mention it – “we” also seem to have an unseemly fear of people who *think* different than we do.

          • I don’t really know what to say to that.

            Here’s what I can say. This morning I woke up to a Facebook post from a guy I went to high school with. it was a picture of Dolezal on a box labeled “Ain’t Jemima.”

            Now, sure, it’s probably only coincidence that my friend is also among the lengthy list you just listed. Am I concerned that he’s pro life? No. Am I worried that he’s a Tea Partier? Nope; most of my friends are. Does his embracing of the 2nd Amendment bother me? Nope, although I wish the other amendments would get some of his support, too. Is it awful that he listens to Limbaugh? No, everyone needs to be entertained in some capacity.

            You know what bothers and disgusts me? It’s that he’s a racist.

            Is he a racist because he’s a gun-toting, AM-radio listening, tax revolting, pro-lifer?

            I don’t think there’s evidence that one leaders to another. I think he’s a racist because he’s an ignorant pig with a loose wire somewhere.

            And I think he’s a significant threat to the future of the country he professes to love.

          • kevins

            I can’t recall “this administration” saying anything like the above. You are making things up.

          • Mitch Berg


            You don’t have to like what I say. You can certainly disagree with me. You might even find I’m in error; not often, but it’s theoretically possible.

            But I never, ever, *ever* “make things up”.

            In 2009, the DHS released a report detailing fears of “right wing extremism”…:


            …that labeled pretty much every single conservative activity – protesting against taxes, abortion and illegal immigration, speaking in favor the the Second or Tenth Amendments, land rights, or any skepticism of the power and competence of government, pretty much the conservative equivalent of “donating to MPR” – as “extremist”. With no specifics, of course; DHS hadn’t actually found any *activity* to surveil – just ideas.

            Can you imagine the outrage – on the left AND the right – if a GOP administration’s DHS told the media that minimum wage, union, “choice” and environmental activists were under general suspicion and deserved extra-special goverrnment scrutiny.

          • kevins

            Not going to argue with you Mitch. The phrase “this administration” means the Obama administration, and in my book, you are disingenuous in applying your accusation of bigotry and hypocrisy in the way you did. I’m also not biting on the link as you do not attribute your opinion to the administration, but to the link above, which is little more that deceptive at best and manipulative at worst. Be well.

          • Mitch Berg

            “Not going to argue with you Mitch”

            Perhaps that’d be wise under the circumstances. I have no idea what you are trying to say here; OF COURSE “this administration means Obama; I cited a statement by Janet Napolitano. And I said nothing about “bigotry and hypocrisy” – merely showing you that I didn’t “make things up”.

            And behind “the link” is Janet Napolitano’s statement. Apparently you don’t want to know that. It’s a shame.

            But she – acting as the Administration’s homeland security czar – did in fact say that regular everyday conservative activities were suspicious.

            And yeah, sure – be well.

        • Jerry

          By what definition is terrorism done by a group? Terrorism can be done by individuals, and this man is probably part of a community of hate, but I assume we will know more soon.

          • Mitch Berg

            “this man is probably part of a community of hate”

            And you base this on what?

          • Jerry

            No evidence. I’m just saying I wouldn’t be surprised if this man spent time online interacting with those who shared and encouraged his sick worldview.

        • Jerry

          Question: would you consider the Fort Hood shooter a terrorist?

    • crystals

      The suspect’s roommate was just interviewed and said that he (the suspect, now in custody) wanted to start a civil war and believed in segregation and white supremacy.

      Does this now meet your criteria? Or will you continue to find ways for this tragedy to not meet a definition of white supremacy and terrorism that feels comfortable to you as a white person?

      • Mitch Berg

        Crystal – I didn’t say “white supremacy” wasn’t a factor, or that he didn’t intend to terrorize people. That would be less “what feels comfortable to me as a white person” (as if my skin color defines what and how I think) and more “you jamming what I say through your template that defines how white people (except you and other good honkies) really think”.

        Merely saying that there’s a faction among America’s cultural and political “elite” that desperately wants to find a big, sinister, organized, shadowy “white terrorist” boogeyman under the bed.

        It’s the MPR listener’s equivalent of listening to Art Bell.

  • Jerry

    Isn’t the the standard definition of terrorists and terrorism is that if you agree with their cause they are freedom fighters and heroes and if not they are terrorists.

  • michael s

    I’ve been saying for nearly 14 yrs there’s been an effort not to call political or religious violence terrorism,when it’s by a white person/people.

  • Boston Globe.

  • Tamara Hayes

    I am not against admitting that terrorists come in all shades. In fact I find more acts of terror have been committed in history by people of “my shade”. However, a hate crime is categorized as : ‘a crime motivated by racial, sexual, or other prejudice, typically one involving violence.’ So.are we suggesting that if it is racial it is white terrorism but if it is motivated by sexual or other prejudice it be a hate crime? Or are we going to reclassify all hate crimes to white terrorism, gender terrorism, sexual identity terrorism?