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“A Classic Case of Terrorism”: Is FBI Ignoring White Violence by Refusing to Call Roof a Terrorist?

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Civil rights activist Kevin Alexander Gray and Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, discuss whether the shooting in Charleston was an act of domestic terrorism. “Dylann Roof was a human drone, and every Tuesday morning the Obama administration uses drones to kill people whose names we don’t even know and can’t pronounce,” Kevin Alexander Gray says. “So I don’t know if I feel comfortable with the idea of expanding this word 'terror.'” But Richard Cohen calls the shooting “a classic case of terrorism.” “It’s politically motivated violence by a non-state actor and carried out with the intention of intimidating more persons than those who were the immediate victims,” Cohen says. “I think in some ways it’s important to talk about terrorism in that way, not so we can send out drones, not so we can deny people their due process rights, but so we can understand the true dimensions of what we’re facing.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: But I wanted to go to the issue of the massacre being terrorism. Speaking at a news conference on Friday, the FBI director, James Comey, refused to label the Charleston massacre as a terrorist act.

JAMES COMEY: I wouldn’t, because of the way we define terrorism under the law. Terrorism is an act of violence done or threatened to—in order to try to influence a public body or the citizenry, so it’s more of a political act. And again, based on what I know so far, I don’t see it as a political act.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was the FBI director, James Comey. It’s surprising many, because the Department of Justice said they were investigating whether they would call this a terrorist act, and he came out against it. Again, we’re joined by Kevin Alexander Gray, activist from Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and Richard Cohen, who is president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Kevin Alexander Gray, your response to him saying this is not a terrorist act?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: Well, you know, most people would say a crime like this, you’re trying to terrorize people. But when we start talking about the so-called expansion of the war on terrorism and expansion of the use of that word, and especially when, in a post-9/11 world, it has meant denying due process rights to a whole lot of people—Dylann Roof was a human drone. And every Tuesday morning, the Obama administration uses drones to kill people whose names we don’t even know and can’t pronounce. So, I don’t know if I feel comfortable with the idea of expanding this word “terror.”

Let’s convict this young man or try this young man for murder, nine counts of murder. I am opposed to the death penalty. I would like to see him go to jail with life without parole. But, you know, the law—when you start using terms like “terrorism” in this country, for me, it’s always had a racial tinge to it going into it. So that’s problematic. And it’s been an expansion of the denial of due process with the use of the term. So I’m a little troubled by it. I just—you know, I believe—

AMY GOODMAN: Let me—let me turn to Richard Cohen and ask your response—

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY: —that there ought to be a standard of law, one standard law.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, your response to whether this is terrorism?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, I understand Mr. Gray’s reservations, but I do think it is a classic case of terrorism. It’s politically motivated violence by a non-state actor and carried out with the intention of intimidating more persons than those who are the immediate victims. And I think in some ways it’s important to talk about it as—and terrorism in that way, not so we can send out drones, not so we can deny people their due process rights, but so we can understand the true dimensions of what we’re facing. We’re not facing just kind of the lone nut who walks in some place and kills a bunch of people. We’re talking about someone who sees himself as part of a larger movement, intended to, you know, deny all black people their rights. So I think there is some consequence in thinking about it that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan Cole recently tweeted that since 2002 right-wing white terrorists have killed more Americans than Muslim extremists. Richard Cohen, the minute the Boston Marathon killings took place, “terror,” the word “terror,” was everywhere, unquestioned, the horrific event that took place in Boston, the horrific attack. But here, it’s different. And can you talk about how it’s framed over the years? You have been tracking white supremacist groups for decades at Southern Poverty Law Center. And by the way, how much have they increased in the last years?

RICHARD COHEN: Well, actually, the number of organized white supremacist groups has fallen fairly significantly over the last few years. But I don’t think that means that the level of white supremacist activity has fallen. We still see a high level of violence. And what we’re seeing is people drifting away from the organized groups, you know, and retreating to the anonymity of the net. You know, there’s a website out there called Stormfront. Right now it has 300,000 registered users. Those are people who have signed up to post their hatred. And that’s an increase of about 50 percent over the last five years.

I want to go back to the earlier question that you asked, the earlier point that you made. You know, after 9/11, we saw all of the resources at the federal level go towards jihadi terror, and, you know, kind of ignoring our homegrown terrorism. That began to change last year somewhat after the killings in [Overland] Park, Arkansas, by a well-known white supremacist. But I still think it’s really important for the government, at all levels, not to put all of their eggs in the jihadi basket and to recognize that we have as much, or if not more, to fear by what we call sometimes homegrown terrorists.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen and Kevin Alexander Gray, we thank you both for being with us.

RICHARD COHEN: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, co-author of the editorial published in today’s New York Times—we’ll link to it—”White Supremacists Without Borders.” And Kevin Alexander Gray, community organizer in the capital of South Carolina, Columbia, edited the book Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence. And, in fact, it was Dylann Roof, if in fact he wrote this manifesto, who tracks his hatred to the Trayvon Martin case. He said that opened his eyes and changed him forever.

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