“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
These were, according to one survivor, the words of the young killer in the Charleston church before he started to shoot people sitting around the table. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina an hour before he started to kill. He knew where to go. Every Wednesday, a group of congregants held religious discussions in an intimate conference room in the basement of the church. It was a small study group, but Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the charismatic pastor of the church and a very well known state senator, wanted to keep it open to everyone. So when Dylann stepped into the room, he asked for the reverend and proceeded to sit next to him. Dylann was the only white person in the room. For an hour, he listened to this group of deeply religious people – their thoughts on faith, perhaps discussing their fears of death and hopes that the Almighty might save them. He was able to observe them as his prey, looking into their eyes, listening to their reasoning. He got to know them a bit.
After the killing, one policeman said that Roof prayed with the discussion group. During the first hearing in court on Friday, it was said that Roof had some doubts as to whether he should pull the gun and do it. A shadow of doubt, a little pause that, had it taken hold, would have allowed us to think that perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this country.
No. Towards the end of the discussion, Roof started to show signs of impatience. He argued with the group, boosting his hatred so that he could start the carnage. Then, he did it. He pulled the gun.
Roof has a very few friends – he had been spending a lot time alone recently, driving around town and sleeping in his Hyundai. Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, said that the gun, a .45-caliber pistol, had been a gift for the introverted young man’s 21st birthday.
“I said he was like 19 years old, he still didn’t have a job, a driver’s license or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time,” said Cowles. So instead of celebrating his birthday by going to a bar where he could order his first legal drink, Dylann Roof probably went someplace where he could test his gun.
The path that led this troubled young man with his newly bought gun to the basement of a famous black church, felt all too predictable in the setting of Charleston, South Carolina.
Roof was born into a cultural environment where racism was a way of life for many long decades. He grew up in the epicenter of the long Civil War, in a place that still echoes of the tortuous and bloody process from the N-word to “Black is beautiful.” His youth was full of encounters with fragments and the traces of white supremacy, which must have had a strong impact on his social life. His state, South Carolina, still proudly flies the Confederate flag, symbolizing a defeated regime and a white supremacist ideology that is showing signs of revival in today’s society. Perhaps young Dylann Roof knew that the day after his killing spree, flags throughout the country would hang at half-mast, while South Carolina’s Confederate flag would still fly high, defying time and the reason.
Try to imagine what would have happened if the government of Bavaria, a state in the Federal Republic of Germany, exposed the Nazi flag on the roof of the Staats House in Munich? A new war in Europe? Why is it that the “Nazi” flag in front of the State House of South Carolina does not disturb anyone in Washington?
It is almost unsurprising that all of the Republican presidential candidates have been unwilling to define the massacre in Charleston as an act of racial hatred. But as New York Magazine writes, “What’s genuinely mysterious is not just why conservatives believe such nonsense but why they feel obliged to say it. After all, the Republican Party may be in general denial about the persistence of racism as a continuing force in American life, and openly racist whites maybe part of their constituency (just as they have long been part of the Democratic Party’s constituency).” If we also add in the hatred for a black president that is widely shared in the present Republican Party – dominated by the Tea Party and financial moguls – then the picture of who put such hatred into Roof’s heart is almost complete. What is missing is the last bit of this horror story: Who put the gun into the Roof’s hands and the idea of using it to kill into his head? As we saw it, the .45 was the parent’s gift. But as my wife brilliantly put it, “Today, in this country, you do not have to get out and go to meetings of the Ku Klux Klan in order to get certain ideas. Kids can close themselves in a room and get plugged into the Internet, where hate is reinforced with a click on the computer.”
In this way, the picture is complete. But almost no one sees it. Or rather, when you see it, you’d better not say it. Why? I do not think I will ever understand this. But now, after yet another murder added to the carnage in this country, it pains me to listen to President Obama as he tries to create new phrases, evoke new emotions for the long, unbearable series of killings in this country. Be it for the mass shooting in the Colorado cinema, or the almost daily cold killings by white policemen.
So when nobody else dares to say something pertinent and determinate, when – if nothing else – the country should stop and protest as the world did for the killing of the Charlie Hebdo editors, liberal America turns its head towards Comedy Central. Semi-retired Jon Stewart did it again. That is, he saved the media, he fed them material that covers America’s continued tolerance of racially charged murders. Race hatred is similar to terrorism? True. The Confederate flag should be taken down? Of course. But when Stewart says that homegrown terrorism should be stopped, he did not explore the more fundamental forces that left Dylann Roof feeling like he could barge into a church and kill. There is a red line that comedians can’t cross.
So here they are: He did it because in his micro-environment in Charleston, South Carolina, it was still too easy to believe that the people in that study room were inferior to him. He followed an old tribal call in him that insisted he protects the white women from the blacks who were supposedly raping them; to protect the homeland from the barbarian Africans. In the end, Roof will be punished by the same society that held his arm and pulled the trigger. It will not take responsibility for the damage done. Instead, it will accuse him of being insane. One delusional individual who thought he was sacrificing himself for the good of the white nation. How many of these cases have we seen in contemporary American history? Shall we start from Lee Oswald?
Or to put this in a different context: Are the teachings that a high school drop out absorbs as he trolls America’s plentiful White Supremacist websites any less dangerous than the teachings that illiterate boys absorb in the Madrassas of Pakistan?