Thursday, June 18, 2015

Terrorist Strike at Charleston Church

As you all are no doubt aware, yesterday a young white supremacist entered an African-American Church in Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire, killing nine people. The massacre has been labeled a "hate crime". I have little to add to that except that I do not see the distinction between hate crimes and terrorism, and so I prefer to use the latter appellation. When people engage in acts of violence as a political expression of hatred towards the targeted group -- regardless of whether that group is "Americans" or "Jews" or "Muslims" or "Blacks" -- we call them terrorists. And we should.


Mark said...

Is it still terrorism or a "hate crime" (whatever that might be) if the perpetrator is not mentally incompetent?

David Schraub said...

I don't see why not, so long as the perpetrator satisfies the mens rea requirements. This guy specifically admitted he was there to kill black people; his motive doesn't seem unambiguous.

Mark said...

I'm no lawyer, but isn't it first degree murder when you murdered and premeditated the act (planned)? But that you cannot be will not be convicted of same if you are not mentally competent? Why is terrorism different? (see also Mr Hinckley Jr)

If are not guilty of 1st degree murder on account of being strung out on drugs which induce paranoia and rage ... why are you guilty of terrorism if you kill more than a few people induced by same. Doesn't make sense to me.

Can you clarify?

Mark said...

Sorry. I just looked up "mens rea". So what you are saying is basically, no if ye is/was insane or not mentally competent it wouldn't be terrorism. Your "I don't see why not" is confusing as you are basically saying the opposite.

An insane person can have an unambiguous motive. It's just not in any realm of rationality. I don't see the relevance of your remark on the motive being unambiguous.

David Schraub said...

The federal standard for an insanity defense is given in 18 USC 17 (South Carolina has a separate standard that is if anything even narrower). Basically, a defendant asserting the insanity defense must demonstrate by "clear and convincing evidence" (so less than "beyond a reasonable doubt," but more than "more likely than not") "as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, [the defendant] was unable to appreciate the nature and quality or the wrongfulness of his acts. Mental disease or defect does not otherwise constitute a defense." [This rule, incidentally, was adopted after and as a response to the Hinckley assassination verdict].

Basically, this covers cases of outright delusions (I thought I was planting flowers but I was actually stabbing someone, or I thought the guy I shot was an invading martian and not my neighbor). Whether or not Roof has any mental issues at all, I've seen no evidence that he possesses the sort of "severe" mental illness that deprived him of the ability to understand either (a) that he was murdering people or (b) that murder is wrong (note that, for obvious reasons, Roof's subjective belief that the murder is justified because of his racist beliefs is not going to be sufficient, any more than your standard al-Qaeda terrorist's belief that their terrorism is justified would lead to a successful insanity plea). By all accounts Roof seemed entirely aware of what he was doing and why he was doing it.

Now of course, we can imagine a scenario where Roof walked into church wanting no more than to pray, but suffered a true psychiatric break wherein he genuinely thought he was surrounded by mutant scorpions and had to shoot to save his life. I would agree that in that scenario he would not have committed an act of terrorism. But there's no evidence suggesting such a scenario, and lots of evidence (including words from Roof's own mouth) suggesting that this was exactly what it seems to be -- a deliberate attempt "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population" via the commission of multiple homicides (see 18 USC 2331(5) (defining "domestic terrorism").

(I should note that the "strung out on drugs" comparison raises different concerns. To begin, I'm not sure merely having taken drugs that induce "paranoia and rage" would necessarily defeat a charge of premeditated murder. But even if it did, it would probably only knock the case down to Murder 2, not an acquittal).

Mark said...

Seems to me when you started you weren't talking about convictions (hate crime vs terrorism) but how to categorize it on a more philosophic/philological standpoint (what you call it as a citizen not a DA). The reason I suggested some sort of psychotic behavior was that in past cases that has often been the case, but that sort of diagnoses takes time and it seemed too early to make the pronouncement "this is terrorism" before the facts are in. I'd also heard remarks that he'd frequently abused substances/stuff stolen from drugstores and was a meth user. And look if drug induced paranoia "reduces it to murder 2" ... why then does the act remain terrorism? That was the question wasn't it? (and not just whether he'll be charged with murder) But that you'd term this terrorism. Is it terrorism if you're as nuts as Mr Hinckely? I'd say no. I'm not saying it isn't murder but if you think your killing people because Satan is talking through your dog to tell you to kill, your killing isn't terrorism by anybody's definition of the term .... even if yer dog tells you to kill people distinguished by culture or "race".

But that aside, if you note here for example this may be a quite unhinged reaction to the sort of racism peddled by the left, e.g., "Black Lives Matter". His naive discovery that there are more (and un-celebrated by anyone) Black on White violence than the reverse was something of a shock to him, which ultimately drove him (meth or drug paranoia contributing or not) to his actions. Perhaps the race "experts" in the MSM and public eye need to discover that it is not "Black Lives" that matter, but all lives (which you seem to agree with tacitly in your conclusion).

David Schraub said...

I'm not sure why terrorism can't come in the form of a murder 2 rap. Why couldn't it be? As for the distinction between legalistic versus "philosophical" definition of "terrorism", it seems to me the former is the only one wher we care about mental competence because it goes to whether he can be held liable. Once that's taken out the picture and were purely in the realm of linguistic characterizing, well, the community seemed pretty effectively terrorized to me.

Of course, the manifesto you note makes very clear what his motives were and they're explicitly racist motives. The evidence that would support psychosis (virtually none) versus the evidence that would support run-of-the-mill white supremacy (overwhelming) makes this a weird rabbit hole to insist we dive down. I've yet to see you make similar idle musings over whether the 9/11 hijackers suffered from mental illness.

[I am curious: when you pass a funeral procession, do you run up to the mourners and demand that they acknowledge that others, too, have experienced loss?]

Mark said...

Well, I guess I don't understand your definition of terrorism. Seems to be it has to be an act that has some connection to the real world with regards to the motivation of the perp and that the victims (or group subjected to attack) needs to be expecting more similar attacks to follow.

I guess you could make a definition of terrorism that examines only the effects and ignores the perpetrator. I'm not sure that's the common notion of it. For example, almost all typical (male) serial killers terrorists single out victims based on how they trigger their peculiar sexual fantasies. So. Is a serial killer a terrorist? I think our common notion of terrorism is that it the motivations are more ideological or political.

The evidence that would support psychosis (virtually none)

Way way to early to tell. I've seen no psych reports. I suspect you haven't either. I'm guessing the interrogation and investigation is just getting started.

That was my point. If, as I suggest, the common notion of terrorist doesn't include the insane then we can't say today that this was terrorism or not. Right?

I've yet to see you make similar idle musings over whether the 9/11 hijackers suffered from mental illness.

Hmm. I've missed a chance to read any psychological write-up on them. Can you point me to that?

Here's the thing. Abstractly can an insane person commit terrorism? We disagree on this. I think it's mostly because nobody thinks insanity is contagious.

I suggest perhaps not. Let me try to work out some reasons. First. Is sanity on the part of the shooter a reasonable assumption. I suggest not. Guys who walk into churches, malls, schools and movie theaters and start shooting people are usually nuts (given recent history). So, being nuts is a more reasonable assumption that "not nuts".

And then there's the continued action thing. He's been caught. It seems he's not been "sent" by anyone. Do you expect followup attacks? Do you think anybody does?

For you suggest the community seemed pretty effectively terrorized to me I disagree. They are in shock. They are mourning. They however do not (rationally I think) expect further future attacks. When that Muslim sniper was shooting people in the DC area, people were, perhaps innumerate, but acting terrorized and the shootings were terrorism, because the killings were expected to continue. Terror it seems to me is an act that is done by individuals and/or groups that are intended to create terror in a large part because you expect more to follow. That to me seems an essential part of terror. Solo acts by the criminally insane don't seem like terrorism to me because nobody expects followup actions. School teachers and children in New Hampshire weren't hunkered down waiting for another similar wacko to come into school with a shotgun.

That is what terrorism would induce. On what basis to you say they are terrorized?

Oh, and when you pass a funeral procession, do you run up to the mourners and demand that they acknowledge that others, too, have experienced loss

First off. Where do you live that you see funeral processions in public? I mean I've seen the "cars with lights on" going through traffic, but you can't talk to them. I've never ever seen anything like that. I've seen things like that in movies set in the deep south, but I suspect neither of us have seen that. But ... see, I think all lives matter. I personally don't think I'd ever have the impulse if my child die to exclaim "Mixed Norwegian-Welsh-German-French-British" lives matter, or start a movement to that effect.

And what? Are you disagreeing that all lives matter? That makes no sense. Do you think some the lives of those in certain cultural or racial groups matter more than others? If so, that seems racist. If not, then why do you not also find it objectionable when some people claim they do?

Mark said...


Oh. "What evidence would support psychosis"?

Geesh. He walked into a church and started shooting. That seems a significant tell.

David Schraub said...

You're the one who brought up, unprompted and with admittedly no direct evidence other than the fact of the violence itself (and pitted against a ton of direct evidence that he was a run-of-the-mill violent white supremacist), the possibility of mental illness. You've had the same opportunity to do so in any other case of Muslim terrorism and have not to my knowledge done so. I also disagree with you that our normal instinct regarding a homicide case is to assume that the shooter is probably insane. Insanity pleas are made in less than 1% of criminal cases; while as a society we might not be able to "understand" what drives someone to murder others in cold-blood, we absolutely do not think that the shooters must be so crazy as to be not responsible for their conduct in order to do it. I don't think your instinct when somebody kills a bunch of folks and announces they're doing it for Jihad is to assume that it's not terrorism but mental illness, and it's worth some introspection as to why your intuitions run so sharply counter when the proffered motive is white supremacy.

I'm also baffled by the idea that the community couldn't be terrorized because this is an isolated incident. Of course, there is a long history of racialized violence directed against blacks-qua-blacks in the South lasting for hundreds of years now. White people using terrorism to cow Blacks into a state of fear and submission has a long and well-documented history in this country. Roof's actions are by historical standards not remotely idiosyncratic.

Finally, of course all lives are precious. #BlackLivesMatter doesn't deny that, any more than the Holocaust Museum does or the Vietnam War Memorial does or a funeral that acknowledges a particular death rather than every death that occurred that week does. If god forbid your child was killed, and you gave a eulogy, and somebody ran up to you and said "you bigot -- other children died this week too and you haven't said a word about them", you'd slug them in the face (and rightfully so). But outside "Blacks are the real bigots" racist nonsense, nobody ever talks that way (which is why it's so obvious that it is in fact racist nonsense). #BlackLivesMatter insist that Black lives matter too, not that they matter exclusively; they are protesting against a social dynamic which does not in fact treat Black lives as if they matter (unlike other lives, which are so valued). The fact that some people get really upset at such an obviously benign message (are you saying Black lives don't matter?) is highly indicative that they're not wrong to think that many people don't think their lives matter, or matter as much, and that it is worth stating specifically that (just like everyone elses' lives), Black lives matter too.