Kareem Abdul Jabbar stuck to a fairly workable definition in his Times oped today:
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.Unfortunately he then returned to the useless "terrorism is whenever people do bad stuff" definition in urging us not to "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." Granted that human beings often use incidents as political football for their own gain, calling such use terrorism is only silly. Jabbar was on a more promising track when he implied that the hallmark of terrorism was the hope of using violent tactics against ordinary (typically unarmed) citizens to engender a political or social change. Roof didn't look like a guy who hoped that the public murder of a number of black people would cause a mass exodus of black people from the United States, or even that fellow travelers would rise up and murder all the black people he couldn't get to personally. He was just a nut who thought the evils of the United States could be pinned on a particular ethnic group, who were therefore proper targets of his personal extermination program. Jabbar had another good point, I thought, in disparaging any attempt to view Roof's rampage as targeting Christians. If Roof had been completely silent, I might buy that as a plausible alternative, but his own words make it pretty clear that his problem with the prayer meeting wasn't the prayer but the race of the praying people.
Allahpundit analyzes the New York Times's take, which is that the dictionary definition of terrorism is "the use of force or threats to demoralize, intimidate and subjugate, especially such use as a political weapon or policy." The "especially" leaves enough wiggle room to make this definition so all-inclusive as to be useless. When there is clear evidence of scary force as a political weapon or policy, I'm comfortable calling it terrorism; without that qualifier, we'd have to include a very large chunk of all violence, from domestic abuse to gang warfare to drug cartels to the Mafia. Those are all bad things, but why insist that they're all exactly the same bad thing? But then Allahpundit goes too far, I think, in differentiating the Charlie Hebdo murders from Dylan Roof's rampage on the ground that "When that jihadi animal killed four French Jews at a kosher deli in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo, no one thought that was a 'hate crime' because they were targeted first and foremost for their religion. It was terrorism." When you target people for their religion, I'm inclined to call it a hate crime, unless there's something else going on that makes it looks like organized political action. In the Charlie Hebdo case, the red flag wasn't the anti-semitism, it was the organization of the gang and its explicit ties to a political group. Not that it's necessarily any great linguistic advance to distinguish terrorism from hate crimes. The term "hate crimes" is nowhere near as useful as it's cracked up to be.