As the nation mobilizes to determine what motivated the gunman in the Charleston, S.C., massacre, the shootings highlight what a number of experts said Thursday is a chilling reality:
The greatest danger from terrorism may be from our own ranks and within our own borders.
“Since 9/11, our country has been fixated on the threat of jihadi terrorism,” said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “But the horrific tragedy at the Emanuel AME reminds us that the threat of homegrown domestic terrorism is very real.”
Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested Thursday in Shelby, N.C., ending a massive manhunt that began after the killing of nine people attending a Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night.
Now comes the investigation into how and why it happened.
“Here we go again,” said Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security. “This is an act of domestic terrorism. And as far as the number of fatalities, this was the biggest one we’ve had since Oklahoma City.”
Although there were a number of seeming contradictions in Roof’s ideology, several experts say the shootings are clearly more than a hate crime.
“Yes, it’s hate-motivated,” Johnson said. “But the definition of terrorism is violence committed for a political or social change that instills fear in a population. It definitely fits the bill because of the target — he went into a historical, symbolic facility — and because of (racial statements) he reportedly shouted during the shooting.”
The Kansas City Star reported in April that domestic terrorism used to be a major focus for police and federal agents, especially after the Oklahoma City bombing 20 years ago. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 led to a shift in law enforcement’s focus from domestic to foreign terrorism. And today, The Star found, while the number of violent incidents committed by domestic extremists is actually increasing, the holes in the net to catch them are growing larger.
Incidents of violence have been making headlines for years.
Last year, avowed neo-Nazi F. Glenn Miller Jr. allegedly shot to death three people outside two Jewish centers in Overland Park.
In 2012, white supremacist Wade Michael Page stormed a Sikh temple south of Milwaukee, shooting and killing six people.
In 2009, white supremacist James W. von Brunn shot and fatally wounded a security guard at the crowded U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., in an attack that sent tourists running for cover.
While those shooters were known white nationalists, little is known yet about Roof’s ideologies.
Although he appeared to have an interest in white supremacy, many of his Facebook friends were black. He wasn’t known to groups that monitor white nationalist activity, and unlike some who have committed violence, he hadn’t been publicly promoting a racist agenda.
Yet there also was evidence of racist leanings.
A photo posted May 21 on Roof’s Facebook page shows a scowling young man with a bowl-style haircut standing in a wooded area. He is wearing a jacket with patches that depict the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, a former British colony once ruled by a white minority. Rhodesia became independent in 1980 and changed its name to Zimbabwe.
Another photo that surfaced Thursday showed Roof leaning against the front of a car with a plate that said “Confederate States of America.”
Roof was arrested in March on a misdemeanor drug possession charge, and that case is pending.
On Thursday morning, Roof had 89 Facebook friends. Later in the day, the number had dropped to 80 before the page was taken down. The site said that Roof attended White Knoll High School near Columbia, S.C.
Leonard Zeskind, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, said the patches on Roof’s jacket and comments that Roof allegedly made inside the church indicated a white supremacist mindset.
“He said, ‘You’re raping our women, you’re taking over, this is our country, we want it back,’” Zeskind said. “It’s in line with someone who’s thinking along the lines of the white nationalist universe.”
Zeskind said the shootings were “a terrible reminder that white supremacy remains a danger in our communities.”
“It’s horrible on its face, but it’s also a reminder that this problem has not been done away with,” he said. “Nine people dead — it’s beyond belief.”
Cohen called the shootings “an obvious hate crime by someone who feels threatened by our country’s changing demographics and the increasing prominence of African-Americans in public life.”
“Since 2000, we’ve seen an increase in the number of hate groups in our country — groups that vilify others on the basis of characteristics such as race or ethnicity,” he said. “Though the numbers have gone down somewhat in the last two years, they are still at historically high levels.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino, said mass killers don’t always easily fit into a simple category.
“We tend to make mass killers 10 feet tall when oftentimes they’re 10 inches tall and hunched,” he said. “Many of these attacks, while symbolically hitting a deep chord with citizens, are often part of a chaotic mix of motives, some of which will only ever be known to the offender himself.
“This may be a situation where mental distress is as much an explanation as anything else. But let’s see what comes out from family and friends. Was there some kind of catalytic incident in his life that filled him with some kind of rage where he felt comfortable lashing out against a symbolic target?”
Levin said Roof’s Facebook photo says a lot about him.
“Generally, when we’re looking at motives, we try to start with what are they saying,” he said. “He certainly looks like an angry fellow, and that was the message that he was trying to present.”
The shootings were the talk of social media throughout the day — including online forums that espouse racism.
On Stormfront, the largest online white nationalist forum in the country, dozens of members had posted more than 70 pages of comments by Thursday afternoon. Some suggested the rampage was part of a conspiracy to start a race war in the country; others said the incident would bring down more scrutiny on their movement.
“If anyone wants to go weapons free on drug dealers, or rioters ... Hell, I’ll chip in for ammo,” wrote a poster named CelticUbermensch. “Just tell me where to send the cheque. But killing a group of Christians, no matter what colour they are, just make us look like White versions of ISIS.”
Others responded more calmly.
Marcus Stanley, who wasn’t a Facebook friend of Roof’s, came across his page Thursday and wrote:
“Children do not grow up with hatred in their hearts. In this world we are born color blind. Somewhere along the line, you were taught to hate people that are not like you, and that is truly tragic. You have accomplished nothing from this killing, but planting seeds of pain that will forever remain in the hearts of the families that lost their lives and countless hearts around our country.”
To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.