Why we should call Chris Harper Mercer by his true title — a terrorist (COMMENTARY)

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Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, center, speaks at a news conference in Roseburg, Ore., on Oct. 2, 2015. Chris Harper Mercer, the man killed by police the previous day after he fatally shot nine people at a southern Oregon community college was a shy, awkward 26-year-old fascinated with shootings, according to neighbors, a person who knew him, news reports and his own social media postings. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Steve Dipaola
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SINGH-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 5, 2015.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin, center, speaks at a news conference in Roseburg, Ore., on Oct. 2, 2015. Chris Harper Mercer, the man killed by police the previous day after he fatally shot nine people at a southern Oregon community college was a shy, awkward 26-year-old fascinated with shootings, according to neighbors, a person who knew him, news reports and his own social media postings. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Steve Dipaola *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SINGH-COLUMN, originally transmitted on Oct. 5, 2015.

(RNS) Chris Harper Mercer who gunned down nine students and faculty at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College disdained religion.

According to a classmate and a survivor of the attack, the shooter asked people to stand up and identify their religion before he opened fire.

The U.S. averaged more than one mass shooting per day this year and President Obama has now experienced 994 mass shootings since he was re-elected in 2012.

Given the death toll and the explicit targeting of religious identity, the shooting in Oregon resembles the shooting in Charleston, S.C., earlier this year. On that occasion, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and opened fire. Roof murdered nine African-American congregants before he fled.

Both Roof and Mercer, who later killed himself, were motivated by hate against those who identified with religion differently than they did. Both are terrorists in every sense of how we understand the word — except for one. Both are non-Muslim, and therefore, our media and political leadership are reluctant to place them in the terrorist category.

In our modern world, “terrorist” is a racially coded word we have reserved primarily for describing Muslims engaged in acts of violence. We are quick to label violence as terrorism the moment we learn that the perpetrator is Muslim, yet we immediately stop short when a non-Muslim commits the same act of violence.

Mercer murdered nine innocent people to further his political ideology and worldview. So why don’t we call him a terrorist? As a nation we can’t continue to have it both ways and expect to adequately address the true threats we face together as a country.

Initial reports from the Los Angeles Times referred to him as a “shooter,” CNN.com called him simply a “gunman.” In the case of Roof, initial reports from USA Today referred to him as a “lone wolf,” former Texas Gov. Rick Perry described the shooting as “an accident,” and an expert interviewed by CNN quickly raised the question of mental illness.

The framing of mental illness plays into classic colonialist and Orientalist discourses in which the colonized are presumed to be savage and irrational, whereas the colonizers are rational and civilized. In other words, we presume that a violent white person must be mentally ill, whereas we assume that a person of color is either predisposed or conditioned to be violent.

By misunderstanding legitimate threats to our national security, we miss the fact that this incident falls into a larger pattern of increasing mass shootings and domestic terrorism committed by our fellow citizens.

In Charleston, it took nearly 48 hours to publicly discuss the shooting as domestic terrorism. In Oregon, this conversation has yet to even begin. The media’s response to the Charleston shooting is nothing more than a well-rehearsed trope, in which mass violence by white men is dismissed as an isolated incident.

In his remarks after the shooting, President Obama challenged our assumptions that international terrorism poses a greater threat to our nation than gun violence. He pointed out that while we rightly devote resources to protect against “terrorist attacks,” we continually fail to identify and address the threat of violence within our own borders. When we continually misidentify the problem, we then fail to examine the right solution.

Recent studies from the Police Executive Research Forum show that international terrorism is not the greatest threat to our national security. Rather, the most serious threat to our stability as a nation is the growing threat of domestic terrorism motivated by xenophobia and bigotry.

Simran Jeet Singh is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity University and the Senior Religion Fellow at the Sikh Coalition. Photo courtesy of The Sikh Coalition

Simran Jeet Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio and the senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition. Photo courtesy of The Sikh Coalition

An FBI study found that 94 percent of all terrorism committed on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005 was perpetrated by non-Muslims. Roof and Mercer have each killed more Americans at home in the past three years than al-Qaida and ISIS combined.

Our entire American discourse over what constitutes a threat remains grossly inaccurate, and therefore, our response in these moments of terrible tragedy is deeply problematic.

It is critical that we re-examine how we think about terrorism in order to properly address this problem. Until we do so, we will continue to be at risk — at our places of worship, in our own homes, and yes, even in our schools.

(Simran Jeet Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio. He is also the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a Truman fellow for the Truman National Security Project.)

YS/AMB END SINGH

  • Chas Holman

    Sheriff Hanlin inferred 9-11 and Sandy Hook both were inside Government Jobs, and he alluded to the idea that perhaps we can’t ‘trust’ those ‘in charge’ (of which he is of the same boat).

    They lyrics ‘Now you don’t talk so loud.. now you don’t sing so proud’ come to mind.

  • Daniel Berry, NYC

    Mr Singh, thanks for your deconstructing and dissecting how corporate “journalism” tips its hand when it comes to buttressing the agenda of American corporatists. It’s just one subtle part of the extensive playbook of utterly discrediting our Muslim brothers and sisters.

  • Jon

    Mr. Singh, I support your efforts to allow everyone – regards of which faith (or none) they may hold – to be treated as fully equal Americans. I need to point out, however, that the shooter in this article did not target anyone based on religion. He asked their religion, and then shot every single person regardless of their answer. This has been reported widely, and comes from Tracy Heu, a survivor of the attack.

    We need to stick to the actual facts when discussing anything, especially something as charged as this. I hope you have the integrity to edit your article. At the same time, I wish to reiterate my support for everyone in the United states, including Sikhs, regardless of religion. Best – Jon

  • The Great God Pan

    “Both Roof and Mercer … were motivated by hate against those who identified with religion…”

    Roof had a manifesto. He hated black people and didn’t mention religion..

    “In other words, we presume that a violent white person must be mentally ill…”

    But Mercer wasn’t white. He identified as “mixed race” and looked it. Vester Lee Flanagan wasn’t white, either, and seems to be mysteriously MIA from this article about recent public shootings.

    “Mercer murdered … to further his political ideology and worldview.”

    What political ideology and worldview? His “worldview” was incoherent: a conservative who “hated” (the media’s term, not his) religion but loved the decidedly Catholic and socialist IRA and followed left-hand path occultism. He murdered 9 people because he was, by his former neighbors’ accounts, an angry loner. He hated people and loved guns.

    Terrorism seeks political ends. What political end was he seeking?

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  • Diogenes

    Nomenclature, motivation, etc., are less important than the recognition that Roof and Mercer, et al. are deviants in the clinical sense of the term. They have framed a world view based primarily on the CHOICE to hate others, a hatred so imbalanced as to rise to the level of mass homicide. It is pointless to seek a rationale in such cases. Nor should we seek to determine what made them ‘sick.’ A prominent forensic psychiatrist put it both simply and plainly: Such individuals are not sick, they are deviant by choice. They chose to act with evil intent to obtain evil results via unjust and manufactured hatred towards their victims (Much in the same way as Charles Manson). Meanwhile, similarly ‘disaffected’ youth have been detained in California for plotting the same sort of attack. I remain committed to the 2nd Amendment for self defense’ sake, but the need to screen would be gun purchasers based on mental and emotional proclivities seems to be in order.

  • Bernardo

    Most of the mass shootings in the USA are drug and gang related. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Palestine and Israel mass shootings, roadside and suicide bombings and military carnage are religion related.

  • Bernardo

    And Sikhs are not immune to commenting acts of terrorism. One example:

    “In a politically charged environment, Lala Jagat Narain, the Hindu owner of the Hind Samachar group of newspapers, was assassinated by the Sikh militants on 9 September 1981. Jagat Narain was a prominent critic of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and a Congress leader. He had been writing about accepting Hindi instead of Punjabi as one’s mother-tongue by Hindus living in Punjab. “

  • Meg Harris

    I understand that the shooter in this incident, in fact, DID NOT ask people’s religions, rather he asked if the victims if they believed in God and something to the affect, ‘I’ll see you in the hereafter.” Before shooting them. The question about religion is a second hand account of the incident.

  • Garson Abuita

    This commentary is inaccurate at best, misleading at worst. There is a federal definition of terrorism, which is what really matters. It requires, inter alia, the intimidation or coercion of a civilian population; an attempt to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affecting the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping. Mass public shootings generally don’t meet this standard. State prosecutors seeking to use post-9/11 state antiterrorism statutes against street gangs have learned the hard way that there has to be a political nexus. The very FBI study the author cites points out that incidents may require prolonged study before classification of terrorism.
    Norman David Mayer’s December 1982 threat to blow up the Washington Monument unless the US changed its nuclear policy, is classified as terrorism and demonstrates why the vast majority of violence by “I hate the world” types are not so classified.

  • Garson Abuita

    Also disingenuous is your claim that non-Muslim individual actors don’t get classified as terrorists. They do, when their acts fit the definition. Anti-abortion and white-supremacist incidents all have been so classified. Moreover, several recent incidents where Muslims were the attackers have been classified as workplace violence rather than terrorism, even though Islam seems like it was a motivating factor. Classification as terrorism requires more than that. In fact, the 2015 Chattanooga recruitment center shootings are still under review.

  • Stephen

    Calling a spree-shooter a terrorist is a stretch at best. Terrorists are political radicals (who identify with an organization and cause) while spree-shooters tend to be nihilistic loners. Terrorists have a political agenda and want to spread and use fear, while spree killers just want to kill a bunch of people and become infamous. Terrorists like to target government institutions while spree-shooters just pick places with a sizeable concentration of people in a small area (classroom, office, movie theater, etc…). Terrorism is an international issue, while spree-shooters is clearly a domestic one. MOST IMPORTANTLY, BOTH HAVE DIFFERENT CAUSES AND THUS, DIFFERENT SOLUTIONS, WHICH IS WHY DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN THE TWO IS SO IMPORTANT.

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