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Marco Werman: So here's the Oxford Dictionary definition of terrorist: Someone who uses violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes. So is Dylann Roof, the accused Charleston shooter, a terrorist, and does it matter what we label them? Writer Masha Gessen thinks it does. She's the author of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. It's a book about the Tsarnaev brothers in the Boston Marathon bombings. In an opinion piece for Reuters, Gessen argues against labeling Dylann Roof a terrorist.
Masha Gessen: I would argue that the rhetorical use of the word terrorist accomplishes the opposite of what we want to do in this case. What we want to do is we want to look at what caused the crime, and I think that when we label people terrorist, what we do is we "other" them. We portray them as less than human. We don't actually scrutinize what caused the crime. There is something about the rhetorical use of the term terrorist that prohibits looking at terrorists as people, but if we don't look at perpetrators as people we can't figure out why they did what they did.
Werman: Are you suggesting that focusing on a label for somebody like Dylann Roof actually inhibits a wider conversation about race?
Gessen: I think it probably does, because when we label somebody we basically say that person is not like us, unless we're willing to identify as terrorists. We clearly label him as something other, something else. I think the important conversation that's happening in America right now is a conversation about how what Dylann Roof did is related to a larger American context of race.
Werman: You also write, as far as the word terrorist goes, that we would be better off retiring the world altogether. Wouldn't it be useful if there was a context and there was a conversation about why Dylann Roof did what he did, to then maybe rethink that?
Gessen: Well, in a way, that is a rhetorical device because I don't think there's actually any risk or any hope of retiring the term terrorist altogether, but if I were to fantasize for a second I'd say that would be incredibly useful.
Gessen: Because I don't think that we have derived any use from using the word terrorism over the last fourteen years. We've used it to go to war. We've used it to violate the constitution. We've used it to prosecute people who maybe should not have been prosecuted so harshly. We've used it to label a number of people, the context of whose crimes we have not studied. But I don't think we have used it in a way that has helped us to deal with the actual problems.
Werman: Are we stuck in the 2000s with the whole quote-unquote "global war on terror"? It's kind of the framing device for terrorism and terrorists.
Gessen: Absolutely. We're stuck in basically two things that emerged from 9/11. One was the idea that they hate our freedom, to quote George Bush, and what that statement says is their crimes are utterly irrational; we have no hope of understanding them. All we can do is go to war on them. That's not true. There a rational framework in which these crimes are committed. It's horrifying, but it really does need to be known and understood. And the other narrative that has resulted from 9/11 is this radicalization narrative, which also has very little support in either scholarship or fact. The narrative is that there are these large international organizations that recruit people, take them through the stages of radicalization, and turn them into terrorists. That doesn't seem to be the case very often if at all. It certainly wasn't the case with the Boston bombers. It wasn't the case with Dylann Roof. And both of these cases we've heard the term "self-radicalization" applied, which is a new term, which is actually an attempt to change that narrative to fit people who get their ideas from the internet or are self-driven and self-inspired. But that actually gives the lie to the entire radicalization framework. And we haven't come up nationally in a large public conversation, we haven't come up with anything better or more substantive.
Werman: Masha Gessen is a journalist and the author of The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Thank you as always, Masha.
Gessen: Thank you, Marco.