Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters

54 Harvard Journal on Legislation __ (Forthcoming)

39 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2016

See all articles by Jesse J. Norris

Jesse J. Norris

State University of New York at Fredonia; State University of New York at Fredonia

Date Written: March 21, 2016


After white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans at a Charleston, South Carolina church, authorities declined to refer to the attack as terrorism. Many objected to the government’s apparent double standards in its treatment of Muslim versus non-Muslim extremists and called on the government to treat the massacre as terrorism. Yet the government has neither charged him with a terrorist offense nor labelled the attack as terrorism.

This Article argues that although the government was unable to charge him with terrorist crimes because of the lack of applicable statutes, the Charleston Massacre still qualifies as terrorism under federal law. Roof’s attack clearly falls under the government’s prevailing definition of domestic terrorism. It also qualifies for a terrorism sentencing enhancement, or at least an upward departure from the sentencing guidelines, as well as for the terrorism aggravating factor considered by juries in deciding whether to impose the death penalty.

Labelling Roof’s attack as terrorism could have several important implications, not only in terms of sentencing, but also in terms of government accountability, the prudent allocation of counterterrorism resources, balanced media coverage, and public cooperation in preventing terrorism. For these reasons, the Article contends that the government should treat the Charleston Massacre, and similar ideologically-motivated killings, as terrorism.

The Article also makes two policy suggestions meant to facilitate a more consistent use of the term terrorism. First, the Article proposes a new federal terrorism statute mirroring hate crime statutes, which would enable every terrorist to be charged with a terrorist offense. Second, simplifying the definition of terrorism to encompass any murder or attempted murder meant to advance an ideology would avoid the obfuscation invited by current definitions. However, even without such changes, the government still has the authority and responsibility to treat attacks such as Roof’s as terrorism for nearly all purposes.

Keywords: Terrorism, Hate Crimes, Criminal Law, Terrorism

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Norris, Jesse J. and Norris, Jesse J., Why Dylann Roof is a Terrorist Under Federal Law, and Why it Matters (March 21, 2016). 54 Harvard Journal on Legislation __ (Forthcoming), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2752517

Jesse J. Norris (Contact Author)

State University of New York at Fredonia ( email )

280 Central Ave
Fredonia, NY 14063
United States

State University of New York at Fredonia ( email )

United States

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