By TIME columnist Abdul-Jabbar, who is a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player. He is also a celebrated author, filmmaker and education ambassador.
The real threat is that we allow this incident to be used as political football
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A man walks into a crowded room… and shoots a bunch of people. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. Get used to it, because statistics suggest you’ll be hearing it a lot more. According to a study by Harvard and Northeastern University researchers, from 1982 to 2011, a mass shooting occurred an average of every 200 days; since 2011, mass shootings happened an average of every 64 days. Each time it happens, politicians and commentators immediately rush into to announce the social significance of the tragedy. And sometimes, these commentaries can be more harmful than the actual shootings because of their long-term effect, to the point of creating even more widespread damage to the community.
There’s a lot of debate about whether or not this was a terrorist act. Terrorism is a political tool that has a specific goal. Terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan want to drive Americans out of their countries. Terrorists in other countries do it for the same reason: to gain political power. After an hour at the prayer meeting, Dylann Roof stood up and proclaimed that he was there “to shoot black people.” His rambling manifesto during the shootings was: “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” In his mind he was a terrorist, but in reality this was nothing more than hate crime using terrorist tactics to enact his racist fantasy. Roof had no hope of driving African Americans out of the country, starting a race war or engendering any political or social change at all. We shouldn’t use it as an excuse to discuss terrorism because that diverts us from the actual problem.
The real threat here isn’t that this is an indicator of an surge in right-wing racist attacks, it’s that we allow this incident to be used as a political football by those who hope to leverage it to their gain, which is a more subtle form of terrorism: media terrorism.
First, those politicians and pundits who call this an attack not against blacks, but against Christianity or faith, demonstrate the shoddiest excuse for journalism and the most corrupt exercise of politics. GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum called the shootings an “assault on religious liberty.” Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani opined, “Maybe he hates Christian churches.” Fox News referred to it as an “attack on faith.” Presidential hopeful Rick Perry used the shooting to attack President Obama’s call for more gun control. Presidential candidate Rand Paul commented, “You can be a minority because of the color of your skin — or the shade of your ideology.” Presidential candidate Lindsey Graham, and senator of the state where the shootings took place, commented: “It’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”