Thursday, June 25, 2015

Spinning a Tragedy

Another unspeakable crime and once again, people on all sides of the ideological spectrum are using the tragedy as a bullet point to articulate their own points of view. After a young white male murdered nine innocent people in a prayer group at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we heard first from the usual suspects, the pro and anti gun control crowd. This terrible event would never have happened one group said, if we only restricted the sale, possession and use of firearms. On the contrary said the other side, if the members of that congregation had been armed, the death toll would not have been nearly so high.

Now I've stated in this space more times than I care to remember, my belief that there are far too many guns in this country and that the pro-gun lobby has taken the second amendment of the United States Constitution, guaranteeing the right to bear arms, to ridiculous extremes. That said, I see little point in taking the opportunity to use this tragedy as a springboard to espouse that particular belief. The truth is, I don't honestly believe that an individual intent on carrying out this kind of horrific crime, would be deterred in the least by a law saying he cannot have a gun. And personally, the idea of arming the general public to ward off mass murderers is something too scary and ridiculous to contemplate.

It seems events like these cause us to lose all sense of perspective and rational discourse.

Even the president got into the act, mistakenly claiming that out of all the developed countries in the world, crimes such as these, (where an individual or a very small group working independently of any organization, murders a large number of people), only happen in the United States, presumably because of the availability of guns. In July of 2011, a 32 year old Norwegian man carried out two attacks which resulted in the deaths of 77. That attack was the deadliest of all the "lone wolf" massacres that have taken place in recent memory. And Norway has some of the most restrictive gun laws of any developed nation. A quick check of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history shows that the while the U.S. has more than its share, it has plenty of company on that dubious list.

The media, social and otherwise, have been saturated with stories and memes devoted to the racial nature of this attack. The perpetrator made no bones about the fact that he is an avowed racist, intent on starting a race war. Strangely enough, the conservative Fox News network chose to frame this crime as an assault upon freedom of religion, rather than a direct assault upon African American people, the idea of which is probably less palatable to their own point of view. Since the shooter has given us a rambling manifesto stating his belief in the eradication of non-white people from this country while saying nothing about  religion, Fox's tack seems to be way off the mark.

Not surprisingly, Fox's failure to address race got plenty of mileage from the left, who seem obsessed with every bit of minutiae of semantics and symbolism coming from the media. One could argue that more words have been uttered in criticism of the coverage of the attack on the church, than on the attack itself.

The biggest gripe seems to be the fact the mass murderer has not been labeled a terrorist by much of the media and law enforcement officials. The argument is that had he been a Muslim, he would have been immediately branded with the "T" word. By labeling him everything but terrorist the theory goes, mainstream media and law enforcement are racists because they don't take mass murder committed by whites as seriously as mass murder committed by minorities.

Another popular theme is the comparison of the police treatment of the Charleston killer, Dyllan Roof, with the highly publicized cases of Michael Wilson and Eric Garner who died at the hands of the police as they were being arrested. Roof by contrast was taken into custody peacefully and it was widely reported that while being questioned in the murders, the police went out and bought him food from Burger King.

The point is crystal clear to some: Wilson and Garner, two African American men arrested in different parts of the country for allegedly committing petty crimes, ended up dead, while a white mass murderer, Roof, not only gets kid glove treatment, but gets treated to a Whopper. Obviously this proves there is a huge disconnect between police treatment of whites and blacks.

Well I believe there is good reason to believe that quite often the police in this country do indeed treat black people differently than white people. One could find loads of evidence to back that up, but the comparison between the police treatment of Roof and the treatment of Garner and Brown is beyond ridiculous. As heinous as his crimes were, Roof did not resist arrest. The police who apprehended him were doing their job according to the law. Garner and most likely Brown both resisted arrest. It is likely that the police involved in those cases used excessive force. Different cases, different circumstances, with different people involved, make these three incidents incomparable. White or black, the police act differently if you cooperate with them or not. If you don't believe me, try telling off a cop sometime. Defining race relations in America by this particular comparison is pointless, misleading, and shameful.

Is Roof a terrorist? Well he certainly committed a political act designed to terrorize a community. That sets him apart from his fellow mass murderers who walk into schools or movie theaters guns ablazing, shooting anyone in sight. Roof selected his victims because they were African American. Beyond that, what makes Roof's act particularly chilling and appalling is that he sat and talked with his victims before he murdered them. He even confided with the police that he almost didn't go through with his plan because the people he ended up killing turned out to be so nice to him.

What sets Roof apart from the people we generally call terrorists, at least as the term is defined by the law enforcement officials whose job it is to protect us, is that he acted alone. He was not a member of the Ku Klux Klan or a neo-Nazi, nor did he solicit their assistance. Contrary to the popular theory that whites are never labelled as terrorists, the KKK, and other white supremacist groups who commit violence are unquestionably terrorist groups and are labeled as such. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, both white men who committed the bombing of the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 were terrorists as were members of white groups such as the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatist group known as ETA, and countess other organizations around the world whose modus operandi is committing acts of violence targeting innocent people.

In his daily TV program, comedian Jon Stewart, the sole news source and most trusted media voice for many Americans, (the Walter Cronkite of the left if you will), brought up the wars we waged in Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the 9-11 terrorist attacks for the purpose of comparing them to the government's likely response to Dylann Roof and those who may follow him. And what will that response be Mr. Stewart? "We're not going to do shit" said Stewart. Clearly according to him, the government doesn't believe that black lives matter either.

If you care to look into each matter specifically without making absurd comparisons, the people who carried out the 9-11 attacks were a very well funded and organized group who were living under the protection of the ruling body of a sovereign country, Afghanistan. If you remember, that country openly defied our demands to turn over the people who attacked this country, which in effect was an act of war against the United States. You may not agree with our actions in Afghanistan but a very good case can be made that those actions were justified. (Iraq of course is a completely different story for another day).

Fighting an organized belligerent group is far removed from trying to protect society from an individual bent on doing harm. So what can we do to protect ourselves from people like Dyllan Roof? Frankly I have no idea. It would be nice to say that what caused him to do what he did was the virulent racism that runs rampant throughout this country, if only we could eliminate that, we'd be well on the way to solving the problem. But the diseases of discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and racism have been around as long as humans, they're among the darkest sides of our nature. And contrary to what many people would like to believe, logic would dictate that racism wasn't the only disease from which Dyllan Roof suffered.

The slew of arson attacks on black churches following the murders in Charleston prove, if we needed any proof, that the disease of racism is alive and well in this country. Simply put it's not going to go away anytime soon, not even if we label Dyllan Roof a terrorist or remove the Confederate flag from public places, which by the way, I think would be a good idea, however irrelevant it may be in terms of addressing the problem at hand.

Through all the nonsense we heard in the week following the Charleston massacre, the words of a small group of people rang loud and clear as a beacon of hope, and perhaps may be the greatest challenge we have to the horrid possibility that attacks like this one will continue. They came from the relatives of Dyllan Roof's victims who the day after he was apprehended, confronted him at his hearing via closed circuit TV. One by one they got up to say they forgave him.

Now this may seem an act of weakness or surrender. On the contrary, it was a powerful act that said in no uncertain terms, both to Roof and to those who may be tempted to follow in his footsteps, telling them directly: "you may have the power to take away our loved ones, even ourselves, but you are entirely powerless to make us hate, even to hate you."

If there is anything that people like Roof are more afraid of than folks who are different than them, it's the thought of being powerless.

My guess is those words, as well as the kindness directed toward him by the people he murdered, will haunt Dyllan Roof as he lays awake at night in his cell awaiting his likely date with the needle.

Who knows, their words of grace may even have an impact on potential Dyllan Roof imitators. One can only hope.

Hate begets hate, most of the time. As we've seen time and again, violence in reaction to violence only leads to more violence. What the families of the Charleston victims did was remarkable, they did something that does not come to us humans by nature. Maybe it will take more remarkable acts by remarkable people to help stem the tide of racism.

The ideological divide in this country is tearing us apart. The victims' families understand that we're stronger as a community when we're together than when we're apart. Perhaps we could learn a little bit from those remarkable people in Charleston on how to love and forgive, and to accept each other despite our differences, rather than set ourselves apart, filled with vengeance and hate for those with different opinions and ways of life.

We've tried the vengeance and hate part, and God knows it's not working.


I struggled long and hard on whether to mention the name of the Charleston killer in the post as he doesn't deserve any more attention than he's already gotten. Lost in all that are the names of his victims who deserve all of our love and respect, along with their families and loved ones. They are:

Cynthia Hurd
Susie Jackson
Ethyl Lance
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney
Tywanza Sanders
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
Rev. Sharonda Singleton
Myra Thompson

Here is a link to a USA Today article on how you can contribute to help out their families.

May God bring peace to the people of Charleston and to the families of the departed victims and the survivors, as well as to all of us.

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