In last week’s shocking mass murder of nine members of a black American church in Charleston, South Carolina, in the United States, one of the ruling ideas of American culture, the right to own a gun, collided with the original sin of the American political experience, racism—resulting in yet another modern tragedy.
In Greek myth, tragedy was something fated, unavoidable. In modern times, a tragedy is the exact opposite: It is something that can be prevented; the product of circumstance, not destiny. The killing of Bible study group participants meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston was shocking not only because the killer was a 21-year-old white supremacist who listened to the group for an hour before opening fire, but also because the United States is not a stranger to these episodes of violence. One of the world’s most advanced countries, with the biggest economy and the most powerful military, must surely know what needs to be done to stop the violence, but an influential lobby, polarized politics and craven or cowardly leaders have rendered it shockingly impotent.
Statements made immediately after the mass murder and issued by Republican politicians, by ideological true believers speaking on the Fox network, by advocates of the Second Amendment, helped deepen the shock of the event: There was emphasis on the perpetrator being “one of these whacked-out kids,” and an insistence that the act of a white man killing black victims inside a church wasn’t “anything broader than that.” There was the remarkable and repeated attempt to paint the murders as an attack on religious liberty. There was a general refusal to talk about gun control, and a reluctance to use “terrorism” to describe the violence perpetrated by a white man.
Even as reports spread describing the mindset of the shooter (a friend of his said he had wanted to start a “race war”; he reportedly told a victim “You are raping our women and taking over the country” before killing him; a website being attributed to him records utterances such as “Niggers are stupid and violent” and “I hate the sight of the American flag”), the attempt to describe his action as anything but a racially motivated act of terror continued. It is difficult to choose the most absurd reaction, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s initial remarks calling the carefully planned mass murder “an accident” must be at or near the top of the list.
The site of the murders is of especial significance: Churches like those in Charleston were historically among the first sanctuaries for African-Americans escaping slavery. The Emanuel AME Church itself is said to be cofounded by a famous organizer of a slave revolt. (Before it could start, he was found out and executed.) Not least, the modern history of American civil rights winds through towns like Charleston; 50 years after Martin Luther King, the mass killing of black Christians inside a church they called their second home is unbearably poignant.
But the time of the murders is of import, too: The year 2015 has been a terrible year for American blacks. High-profile incidents in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; McKinney, Texas; North Charleston, South Carolina, and in other places have placed the spotlight on police brutality against nonwhites. As the Guardian reported earlier this month: “There have been, according to … data [compiled by the Guardian itself], 490 people killed by police this year [in the United States] as of this writing, 138 of whom were African-American. That’s close to 30 percent, a disproportionate number considering blacks make up 12 percent of the US population. By way of comparison, the figures mean that the police killed more people in the first 24 days of 2015 (59) than have been killed in the past 24 years (55) in England and Wales.”
To the heightened sense of fear and insecurity African-Americans must feel these days, when blacks are killed at traffic stops or in checkpoints, now add the possibility, the very American tragedy, of dying while in church, among fellow believers, at prayer.
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