19 Jun 2015

Was the Charleston shooting an ‘act of terror’?

A year after 9/11 our family moved to Washington. The nation and its capital were still raw with the wounds of terror. Different coloured warnings kept the nation on high alert and nerves were highly strung about another possible attack.

But what really “terrorised” us, and millions of Americans in the Washington area, wasn’t the thought or threat of another attack from extremists. It was the hunting spree of two black American killers, known as the Washington snipers who picked off one seemingly random target after another and ended up killing 11 people and injuring four. It lasted three weeks and it terrorised us.

We stopped going to playgrounds because the snipers picked off targets in open spaces. We were nervous about refuelling our car because two victims had been killed at petrol stations. It changed our lives as much as the new post 9/11 flight rules did.

We were terrified and terrorised. And yet no one was allowed to call this domestic terror, terrorism. The latter was a label reserved for Islamic extremists.


Since 2001 America has been largely spared “terrorist” violence. The one exception was the Boston marathon bombing in which two Chechen brothers, who had immigrated to America, killed three and injured dozens with a pressure cooker bomb planted near the finishing line.

The killing resulted in a mass manhunt which saw the greater Boston area of almost 5 million people in lock down, until one suspect was shot dead and the other captured.

The attack was appalling. The response was alarming. Terror had come back to the streets of America. A few months earlier a young white man had shot dead 20 five and six year old kids and their teachers in Sandy Hook, a small town in Connecticut. The nation grieved in deep shock. But this school shooting, the worst of many, was never called an act of terrorism and therefore it was denied the seriousness and legislative response it deserved.


Gun violence is an epidemic in America. But every time there is a school, cinema or restaurant massacre the sale of guns and ammo increases and the debate about gun control gets drowned out. And yet this is the worst kind of terrorism that America faces these days.

Guns, racism and violence are America’s most stubborn toxins. For the first time some, like Jon Stewart, the TV comedian are debating whether to call what happened in Charleston terrorism. But until the nation does, and sees it as such, very little will change and America will continue to do what it does best in these tragedies: grieve with plangent poignancy while doing little, if nothing, to solve the problem.

Follow @MattFrei on Twitter

Tweets by @mattfrei