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When is a shooting an act of extremism?

Vigil in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting
Vigil in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting Photo: AFSC

When is a shooting an act of extremism? How about...never?

Last week - while we all mourned the lives lost in Orlando - we also remembered the devastating shooting of nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Our hearts and thoughts are with the people of Charleston, and especially the families of the victims, just as they are with the people of Orlando. To honor their memories, let's stop using the word "extremism" to describe this or any other act of violence. Here's why.

In the aftermath of these two terrible tragedies - united by deep histories of structural violence - we've seen some excellent coverage of how institutional homophobia led to the Orlando shooting and how institutional racism caused the tragedy in Charleston. We've seen good discussions of how these structural problems also shape the media's coverage of this kind of violence.

What it means to use the word "extremist"

As many outlets pointed out in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, there has been little use of the word extremism or its rhetorical cousin, "terrorism," to describe this form of violence - though it's been all over the coverage of the Orlando shooting. These articles have rightly pointed out that the use of the word "extremism" is racialized. This means that using this word implies something about the race of the perpetrator. In U.S. public discourse today, extremism and terrorism are rhetorically linked to Islam and foreign-ness, just as phrases like "inner-city violence" are rhetorically linked to Blackness. Other kinds of violence are rhetorically linked to whiteness. In the Charleston case, Dylann Roof's horrific acts were often framed as the result of mental illness - racializing both mental illness and the violence that supposedly resulted from it as white. Implicit in all this is that the writers and the readers are similar to each other - an homogeneous "us" that is also often racialized as white.

The stakes for this kind of labeling are high. There are different implications in the court of public opinion: Aren't (white) shooters with mental illness suffering, while (Muslim/Brown) "extremists" are crazy or coldblooded? There are differences in actual courts too: Committing an act of "extremism" or "terrorism" carries different legal consequences than committing murder. But if our goal is both justice and healing, however, we need to do away with both the word "extremism" (and "terrorism" while we're at it) along with other racialized terms to describe violence. Why? Because this kind of racialized language creates what anthropologists call "social distance" that both perpetuates awful stereotypes about who deserves what while also making it hard to see what's really going wrong.

Social distance in media coverage of mass violence

In the U.S. today, using words like extremist or terrorist rhetorically aligns the journalist and the reader against the so-called extremist or terrorist, as in the case of Omar Mateen. It makes it sound and feel like there is an ocean of difference - social distance - between an implicitly white "us" and a non-white "them." By the same token, when we describe Dylann Roof's acts in terms of mental illness, it makes him sound like a victim or a patient - lessening the social distance between the writer/reader and the perpetrator. Not only does this perpetuate awful stereotypes, every time we use that word it gets a little bit harder to see the root causes of this kind of violence: inequality, institutional homophobia or racism, and the political uses of violence.

In order to address these root causes, we need to be able to see them clearly. So to honor the victims of the Orlando and Charleston tragedies, let's throw these labels out the window. It's a first step towards changing the narrative on these kinds of tragedies in the U.S. today - and an important step towards ending them.

Thoughts? tell us about it in the comments.

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