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Yes, Charleston was terrorism. Denying that isn't just wrong, it's offensive.

People sit on the steps of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston.
People sit on the steps of Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston.

What "counts" as an act of terrorism? It's a question that is both easy and impossible to answer, and one that many Americans are now debating with regards to the mass murder in Charleston, South Carolina.

That this question has grown so urgent should tell you there is much more at stake here than a matter of terminology.

Defining this as terrorism is a way of asking that Americans recognize the severity of the effect and intent of this attack, and that we take this as seriously as we would other forms of terrorism. It asks that we see this as part of a long and painful history of politically motivated white violence against black communities.

It's also a way of calling attention to the fact that Americans are willing, even eager, to use the word "terrorist" for some kinds of people, but not for others. It demands us to ask why that is, and what it says about our attitudes toward race and violence.

It is often the case in America that when we talk about issues related to race, we are really talking about something else, something that is too big and painful to speak to directly. This is one of those moments.

Asking "Is this terrorism?" is a way to ask about something more important than definitions

Often, people start this debate by asking whether the definition of terrorism applies here, and that requires knowing the definition — of which, of course, there is none.

The US legal system has taken a few goes at this question. A law on international terrorism, later expanded to domestic terrorism by the Patriot Act, characterized it as criminal violence with the intent to "intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping."

Political scientists have tried to define it as well, but are hugely divided over this question, which is as controversial within the academy as it is outside of it. The Irish political scientist Louise Richardson, in her book on the subject, ventured a seven-point definition that boiled down to, in her words, "Terrorism simply means deliberately and violently targeting civilians for political purposes."

Even that does not fully capture what we mean when we say "terrorism," in part because the word has taken on a cultural weight in the US that goes beyond formal definitions.

This debate does not have such emotional force, after all, because everyone is highly engaged with litigating the relevant political science literature. Rather, it is because whether or not we call this "terrorism" has tremendous implications for the narrative we construct around this attack, and thus around issues of race and violence in America.

Today in this country, when we call something "terrorism" we are making a moral judgment about the odious wrongness of the perpetrator but also about the right of the targeted group to feel that they are under threat and thus to be protected.

That makes the debate over whether white supremacist violence against African Americans counts as "terrorism" both a very important one and a very uncomfortable one.

It requires us to acknowledge our history of politically motivated white violence against black communities, and to admit that this history is not fully over. It forces us to acknowledge that black communities are both reasonably afraid of this violence and rightly entitled to protection from it.

When you understand that, the debate over whether to call it terrorism begins to make a lot more sense.

It is a question of whether we ultimately characterize this attack as something that occurred in isolation — a "confused loner driven by mental instability" — or as part of a larger movement or trend of political violence.

It is a question of whether we define the victims very narrowly, as just the people who were in that church, or define them more broadly, as a larger population that the attacker intended to terrorize.

The attacks of 9/11, for example, physically targeted only certain structures in Washington and New York, but were clearly intended to terrorize all Americans. And that was how it was experienced. From what has been so far reported of the Charleston shooter, it appears at least possible that he intended to terrorize all black Americans.

Just as important, perhaps, is how the attack is experienced by black communities. And that experience, shaded as it is by so many recent stories of police violence, appears to be one of a community that feels terrorized beyond just one shooting in South Carolina.

What we're really asking: is white-on-black political violence still a force in America?

A man holds up a sign after a vigil outside Morris Brown AME Church (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty)

A man holds up a sign after a vigil outside Morris Brown AME Church. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty)

Labeling this an act of terrorism implies that it is intended to terrorize all African Americans — or, more importantly, that it may justifiably be experienced that way. By extension, this acknowledges that there is indeed a discrete and ongoing trend or movement in this country of political violence committed by white people against African Americans.

When we ask whether the Charleston killer is a terrorist, we are really asking whether such a trend of politically motivated white-on-black violence still exists.

That is an intensely controversial question in this country. It touches on sensitive, raw issues of racial inequality, which extends to everything from criminal justice to college admissions. It is not easy to talk about. So we end up talking about narrower manifestations of this instead, such as whether the shooter in Charleston counts as a terrorist.

The Ku Klux Klan is no longer a major force in America, of course; the era of cross burnings is over. But there has been one story after another of predominantly white police forces deploying excessive force against black communities, which to many people feels like an extension of a long-running trend in this country.

The outrage over South Carolina continuing to fly the Confederate flag at full mast on the grounds of its statehouse is instructive here. For some, the flag is irrelevant to this shooting. For others, it could hardly be more relevant, as the flag symbolizes a history of white political violence against black Americans.

Arguments that the shooter was no terrorist at all, but rather a mere criminal, end up speaking to more than just the definition of terrorism. It can be a way of denying that larger narrative of politically motivated violence, and a way of telling African Americans they are wrong to see this shooting as connected to that larger history, if such a history really exists at all.

This is why the media's hesitation to label the shooting as terrorism is, understandably and rightly, causing such offense. To paraphrase Edward Said, the Palestinian-American theorist of Orientalism, it is in some senses a question of which groups of people are and are not granted permission to narrate their own stories.

If black Americans say they experience this attack as part of a trend of white terrorism against black communities, and the media says the attack was not really terrorism, that does not just ignore the experiences of black Americans, it denies them permission even to tell their own stories.

Forcing a conversation that is long overdue

Many of those calling for the Charleston shooting to be identified as terrorism have pointed out, correctly, that the shooter was white, and here in America we have a bad habit of not wanting to see white, non-Muslim terrorists as terrorists. That includes, for example, the man who attacked the Holocaust Museum in Washington in 2009, killing a guard. Or the man who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin in 2010, killing himself and another person.

Rather, only "other" kinds of people can be terrorists, and then that terrorism is said to be somewhere rooted in "their culture" and its "problems." And we don't want to acknowledge that maybe our culture can have problems as well.

As Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote last year, "We treat 'terrorism' in the common vernacular differently because it is ascribed to foreigners who are unlike us, whereas similarly savage behavior conducted by fellow Americans is a reflection of us."

To label what happened in Charleston an act of terrorism would compel us to look inward. We as a society may not feel ready for that. But if we are to respond appropriately to this violence, and prevent it from happening again, look inward we must. We owe the victims that much.