The shooting that took place in Charleston is a heartbreaking tragedy and a consequence of systemic problems in our country we refuse to address. However, the optimist in me also sees it as an opportunity (yet again) to learn from our mistakes in hopes of establishing a more perfect union and a less shitty national dialogue.

Unfortunately, though, our inability to talk about Dylann Roof and his actions using objective, universally-understood terms is preventing us from engaging in any kind of real substantial dialogue, meaning no one has a chance to learn anything whatsoever. In trying to make sense out of the senseless, we’ve let ourselves rely on ill-defined and abstract concepts; while there’s a cacophony of opinion, no one’s speaking the same language — meaning nothing productive is getting accomplished.

So, in an attempt to promote civil and informed discourse when discussing sensitive issues, let’s try and tackle some of these trickier linguistic bastards…

“Evil”

A lot of talking heads and op-ed writers and people you barely know on Facebook are calling Dylann Roof “evil.” It’s easy to see why, and they are totally in the right when doing so, but their rightness is reliant on the same principle that makes “evil” a useless term when it comes to practical discourse: its subjectivity.

We may think we understand the gist of the word, but the actual meaning of “evil” is derived solely from the context in which it’s used — the Christian concept of “evil,” for example, is pretty different from someone like Nietzche’s concept of it. While there are people who might say “Dylann Roof was evil” and mean evil in the “conscious and deliberate wrongdoing” sense, there are others speaking the same words but who mean it in the more religiously-tinged, “Good v. Evil” sense.

It’s also worth not yadda yadda-ing over another pretty big issue with simply calling this 21-year-old with a 9th-grade education “evil”…

Using an abstraction like “evil” as an excuse for why something happened in the real world delegitimizes the more tangible (and fixable) culprits at play; “It’s not Uncomfortable Issue X or Broken System Y that’s at fault, this was caused by something unfathomable that couldn’t be stopped.”

In other, more professional, words:

It lets those who make unethical and self-serving decisions to the detriment of society off the hook, by implying that they are in the thrall of some sort of pathological entity, rather than making a moral choice of their own accord.

Unless you believe there’s a spirit of evil that rears its head indiscriminately, then there are likely more palpable justifications worth highlighting when speaking about Dylann Roof and why he did what he did.

Which leads us to our next term…

 

“Mentally Ill”

If “evil” is the most useless term being thrown around when it comes to the Dylann Roof commentary, “mentally ill” is the most misleading. Like “evil,” it’s being used as a scapegoat to diagnose away something that the intrinsically vague term “mentally ill” can’t begin to explain. Because like “evil,” the term “mentally ill” can mean a lot of very different things.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association’s standard reference for psychiatry, there are over 450 different definitions of mental disorders, and at first glance, I think I qualify for at least a baker’s dozen. Even if Dylann Roof was mentally ill in some form, just using the all-encompassing term “mentally ill” as an explanation doesn’t actually mean anything. It’s like saying someone with a cold and someone with ebola are both “physically ill”; it may not be wrong in a factual sense, but it’s certainly overly-simplifying things.

Not to mention, mental illness is not a valid legal defense.

All states have slightly different definitions, but Illinois law, for example, defines mental illness as “a substantial disorder of thought, mood, or behavior which afflicted a person at the time of the commission of the offense and which impaired that person’s judgment, but not to the extent that he is unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his behavior.”

Basically, Dylann Roof would not be able to simply claim he has an anti-social personality disorder as the reason he shot and killed 9 people in a church. And even if he is mentally ill in some way, no matter how severe, we can’t fairly equate that to motive.

Because mental illness is different than being declared…

 

“Insane”

You may hear a lot of people saying “no sane person could have done this,” and that is a fair enough opinion to have. As long as they are a legal professional.

Because despite popular usage, “insanity” is really a legal term#.

We tend to use it to mean anything we as sane people wouldn’t do, but that sadly subjectifies the term “sane” to mean “sane, relative to how we personally view the world,” and then we’re back to the “evil” problem all over again. To quote Psychology Today, “Insanity is a concept discussed in court to help distinguish guilt from innocence. It’s informed by mental health professionals, but the term today is primarily legal, not psychological. There’s no “insane” diagnosis listed in the DSM.”

And fortunately for the sake of discourse, because insanity is a legal concept, it comes with a very specific set of parameters.

A defendant who is pleading insanity must prove that they were:

  • so impaired by a mental disease or defect at the time of the act that he or she did not know the nature or quality of the act, or, if the defendant did know the nature or quality of the act, he or she did not know that the act was wrong”
  • or

  • although able to distinguish right from wrong at the time of the act, suffered from a mental disease or defect that made him or her incapable of controlling her or his actions”

That means if someone is labeling Dylann Roof as insane, they are claiming he either didn’t know what he was doing was wrong or that he was incapable of controlling his actions. The evidence doesn’t back that theory up, though if you were a lawyer looking to take up Roof’s defense, you could conceivably go with that argument.

But that’s where things get tricky again…

Even though “evil” has no definitive definition, almost all of them involve a willful disobedience towards something (e.g. God, natural law, etc). And if that’s the case, then someone who is evil (by most definitions) can’t also be insane, as insanity is predicated on not being aware or in control of one’s actions. If you believe Dylann Roof did willfully and of his own volition knowingly enter that church to hurt people, then you are not describing someone who is insane.

You’re describing a terrorist.

 

“Terrorist”

A terrorist is someone who engages in the act of terrorism, which all-knowing Wikipedia tells us is “commonly defined as violent acts intended to create fear, perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or ideological goal, and which deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants (e.g., neutral military personnel or civilians).”

While there is the whole “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” debate to be had, this seems like a pretty nice set of guidelines to at least start with.

Terrorism involves:

  • violent acts…
  • intended to create fear…
  • perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or idealogical goal…
  • that deliberately target or disregard the safety of non-combatants

Domestic terrorism is even explicitly defined in the PATRIOT Act as those acts which are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State that appear to be intended to:

  • intimidate or coerce a civilian population,
  • influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or
  • affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping

Which means while we like to think of terrorism solely as radical Muslims doing the whole “mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping” stuff, there’s really a lot more that qualifies for a label like the big T. In fact, since September 11th 2001, “nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims.”

Did you know that the anti-black terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan was the reason the first federal anti-terrorism law was ever passed in the first place? It was in 1871 as a response to the KKK engaging in “raids against African-Americans and white Republicans at night, employing intimidation, destruction of property, assault, and murder to achieve its aims and influence upcoming elections.”# Nine counties in South Carolina were placed under martial law and thousands of arrests were made.

Now, almost 150 years later, we see Dylann Roof’s racist online manifestos and the pictures of him wearing flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa. We hear that his aspirations were to start a race war and that he told his victims, “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.” And it’s impossible to deny that what he did was

  • a violent act…
  • intended to create fear…
  • perpetrated for an economic, religious, political, or idealogical goal…
  • that deliberately targeted or disregarded the safety of non-combatants.

Most people are comfortable admitting that Dylann Roof was a racist, and while that’s a big step in our country’s national dialogue, using the above definition, it is also safe to say that Dylann Roof is most definitely a terrorist (legal ramifications and all). And that doesn’t mean all racists are terrorists, just as not all terrorists are racists, but it does mean that when a racist acts on that racism with violence, they should be considered terrorists.

***

So, in summary, we could call him evil but the term is impractical because of its ambiguity, we shouldn’t call him mentally ill because there’s no evidence of mental health issues, we can’t call him insane because that’s a legal term we’re not qualified to use, and we should absolutely be calling him a terrorist.

The problem then, is what happens next.

Because this isn’t that kind of terrorism that we’re pre-programmed for, we as a country refuse to see it as indicative of a larger issue, as part of a larger historical trend:

This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil.
 
The white terrorist exists solely as a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.

— Brit Bennett, New York Times

And until we can open our eyes about where tragic events like this fit in the grander context of our country’s fractured story, we’re all just screaming gibberish in the dark.