When the news broke Wednesday night of the horrific massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, from the start people asked why this crime, which would have been labeled "terrorism" if the killer had been a Muslim, is merely a "hate crime" or the work of a deranged madman since the murderer is white. It's a very good question and people are right to ask it. I think the word "terrorism", as we've come to use it, is so clumsy that it might be better to retire the word altogether. But as long as we do use it, it definitely makes sense to apply the label to this crime. But there's another meaning of the term, or another history, that I think helps us understand much more of the past and the present of what happened Wednesday night in Charleston.
You've probably heard of The Citadel, one of the most storied military academies in the United States, which is located in Charleston. As Benjamin Parks explains in this piece from yesterday, the origins of The Citadel are directly linked to the reaction to the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy that rocked the city in 1822. As you've probably also seen in the news coverage over the last two days, Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel AME Church. Nor is this connection between The Citadel and the attempted Vesey uprising some coincidence or oddity. It is a particular connection that illustrates a greater and sobering truth: the Southern military tradition, whatever it has evolved into in more recent history, has its roots in the institution of and particularly the preservation of slavery. Whether it is slave patrols, militias focused on putting down slave revolts or musters intended to overawe subject populations - while no institution has a single origin, this basic fact about the history of the American South is unquestionably true. It is particularly so about South Carolina.
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