Thirty-six hours after Dylann Storm Roof slaughtered their loved ones in a Charleston, S.C AME Church, family members of the victims grieved their loss but urged the mass murderer be treated with grace, dignity and forgiveness. Like Nadine Collier, who lost her mother, they echoed her despair but also her goodness. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul,” she said at Roof’s bond hearing.
I doubt I could ever do that. Her words are as unimaginable as if Bill and Denise Richard on April 17, 2013, less than two full days after the Marathon bombing killed their son and maimed their daughter, had forgiven Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Even the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did not call for forgiveness of those who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls. The closest he came was calling on the congregation not to retaliate with violence but to hope that something redemptive would emerge from the tragedies.
Dylann Storm Roof’s act was unforgivable. Nor should it be dismissed as the act of a mentally ill individual. To do so defines him as an outlier, even the victim of inadequate social services, and it ignores the underlying current of social hatred that has coursed through our history for far more than a century. Yes, we have made progress. We have made strides in virtually every sphere of human activity, up to and including electing our first African-American President. South Carolina’s governor is a woman of Indian descent, and last year that state also sent to the U.S. Senate the first African-American since Reconstruction. But we are not post-racial as many wanted to believe in the heady days following the 2008 election. If anything, Barack Obama’s election tapped a wellspring of hatred and gave rise to ugly calls to “take back our country.”
The President acknowledged the complexity of the situation when he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that “Every country has violent, hateful or mentally unstable people,” Obama said. “What’s different is not every country is awash with easily accessible guns.” We all know it’s unlikely that a craven Congress will do anything about that, even to pass a tame background check law. But we do need to face up to the conditions that create a fertile ground for white supremacist and other domestic terrorists to act on their hatreds.
Warning signs must be heeded. Acquaintances of Dylann Roof reportedly acknowledge being aware he had engaged with other disturbingly angry young men on the internet. Photos of Roof wearing the insignias of apartheid nations South Africa and Rhodesia and sporting the confederate battle flag plate on his car were but tip-offs. He wanted a race war and talked about killing blacks. Then there was his 2400-word manifesto, apparently prompted by the Trayvon Martin case, in which Roof lamented the absence of skinheads, any “real” KKK, to do what needed to be done. He excoriated those on the internet for being all talk and no action. Shouldn’t he have been on some watch list?
Freedom of speech gives wide latitude for hate speech, but when hate speech spurs violent action it becomes hate crime. And, yes, symbols do matter, from swastikas to apartheid badges to the confederate battle flag, which was flown atop the South Carolina capitol in Columbia in 1962 to protest federally mandated desegregation.
Governor Charlie Baker quickly back-tracked after obtusely saying on WGBH radio that it should be left up to the state to decide whether to display on public property the flag symbolizing defiance and support for Civil War slavery and continued school segregation The flag of pain and oppression should be relocated to a nearby Civil War Memorial if it must hang at all. Under pressure, Governor Nikki Haley today called for the flag to be removed to private property, but it will take a vote of both houses of the South Carolina legislature to remove it. In the wake of the massacre, the American flag is at half staff; sadly, the rebel flag is not.
President Obama will deliver the eulogy Friday at services for Rev. Clementa Pinckney. It could be the signature speech on race of his Presidency. As significantly, this is a chance for Presidential candidates to differentiate themselves on a wide variety of issues related to the prevalence of violence and racism in our country. Who among them will elevate their rhetoric, and, of those who do, which candidates offer the promise of actually getting something done to move us forward.
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