What can you say in the face of an inexplicable act? When you are committed to explanations – never excuses, but explanations – what can you say? When you are dedicated to opposing the death penalty unilaterally, no matter how heinous the crime or vilified the criminal, no matter how violated we might feel as a community, what can you say in light of Charleston?
Well, let’s start with the low hanging fruit first. Dylann Storm Roof, a skinny 21-year-old white supremacist with a ridiculous haircut and an unfortunately predictive middle name, seems to have lived the isolated, loner experience we might expect one with his views to live. A high school dropout with a pill problem, he scuffled around on the edges of the law absorbing the odium so easily found in this era of internet-charged access to the nether regions of hate groups. Sporting some badly outdated apartheid patches from South Africa and what used to be called Rhodesia on his Facebook profile photo, it seems likely he wouldn’t even have known the history of those countries without having been spoon fed it on a hate site. Of course, the answer to such a problem does not lie in the narrowing of the First Amendment – as long as we have it, and hopefully we always will, the lowest form of human speech will find its way into the open air. But in South Carolina you don’t have to plug in to find symbols of intolerance; all you need do is look up at the Confederate flag waving in front of the state capital. Under the absurd guise of respect for the heritage of the South, the shameful image of slavery continues to be dignified by a government. Does this excuse the mad killing of nine worshippers in a church? Of course not. But nor should we be shocked when such an atmosphere breeds demented violence in those who might be vulnerable to incitement.
And then there is the gun, the .45 caliber handgun he had to reload several times in order to achieve his goal of killing as many blacks as possible, the gun that was bought with the money given him as a birthday present by his parents. The president, saddened by the bloodshed but also enraged at the easy access this kid had to guns, couldn’t help but point out that sooner or later we had to come to grips with the laxity of our gun laws. We don’t know much about Dylann Roof’s home life or his upbringing, but very few of us would guess that he grew up in a home of diverse and tolerant views. Is there something we could do tomorrow to end the generational passing of hatred and intolerance? No. Is there something we could do tomorrow to end the possibility that a disturbed young man might walk into a Walmart and leave with a semi-automatic? Of course there is.
But the gun problem this country has, the outrage of a Confederate flag that continues to wave, the hate groups that fester on the internet, those are the easy targets. The much harder target is Dylann Roof himself, and what we do with him. What in the world was he thinking as he sat for an hour among those people he wanted to destroy? Was he struggling with his own hatred while those around him prayed and presumably welcomed him into their circle? Did he try to shout down the voices of hate in his own head, or listen to other voices that might have told him the Confederacy was dead and with good reason, that South Africa decades ago did away with apartheid, that Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe? Did he think for even a second that the violence he felt welling up inside him wasn’t going to achieve anything?
We may never know. There is a very good chance that even Dylann Roof doesn’t know, so consumed is he by delusions of starting a new civil war with the same sense of inhumanity that started the old one. What can you say in the face of an inexplicable act? That we must react with reason to unreason, and humanity to inhumanity. If there was ever a time to understand that violence only increases violence, this is it. This is what we must say.