By Robert C. Koehler
He sat with them for an hour in prayer. Then he pulled his gun out and started shooting.
And today our national numbness is wrapped in a Confederate flag. The young man who killed nine members of Charlestonâ€™s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal ChurchÂ on WednesdayÂ night was an old-school racist. â€œI have to do it,â€ Dyllan Storm Roof is said to have explained. â€œYou rape our women and youâ€™re taking over our country. And you have to go.â€
Roofâ€™s roommate toldÂ ABC NewsÂ the next day that he was â€œbig into segregation and other stuffâ€ and â€œhe wanted to start a civil war.â€ And this is America, where we have the freedom to manifest our lethal fantasies.
But this is bigger than racism and the pathetic monster of white supremacy. Racism is a name for one of the currents of righteous hatred that coils through our collective unconscious, and over the decades and centuries it has motivated terrible crimes against humanity. But the â€œcivil warâ€ that Roof participated in is, I think, much larger and much more meaningless. And not all the participants are loners.
â€œIn a pattern that has become achingly familiar to him and the nation,â€ theÂ New York TimesÂ reported, â€œMr. ObamaÂ on ThursdayÂ strode down to the White House briefing room to issue a statement of mourning and grief as he called on the country to unify in the face of tragedy.â€
Indeed, itâ€™s the 14th time, according toÂ The Guardian, he has done this since heâ€™s been in office. Itâ€™s the 14th time he has said words like: â€œI am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.â€
America, America, land of the mass murderer.
Mass Murderers, Soldiers and War
Mass murders have increased 14-fold in the United States since the 1960s, sociologist Peter Turchin wrote two and a half years ago, after the Sandy Hook killings. In his essay, called â€œCanaries in a Coal Mine,â€ Turchin made a disturbing comparison: Mass murderers kill the same way soldiers do, without personal hatred for their victims but to right some large social wrong. He called it the â€œprinciple of social substitutabilityâ€ â€” substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong.
â€œOn the battlefield,â€ Turchin wrote, â€œyou are supposed to try to kill a person whom youâ€™ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.â€
â€œThat is to say,â€Â I noted at the time, â€œthe definition and practice of war and the definition and practice of mass murder have eerie congruencies. Might this not be the source of the social poison? We divide and slice the human race; some people become the enemy, not in a personal but merely an abstract sense â€” â€˜themâ€™ â€” and we lavish a staggering amount of our wealth and creativity on devising ways to kill them. When we call it war, itâ€™s as familiar and wholesome as apple pie. When we call it mass murder, itâ€™s not so nice.â€
Dylann Roof had a toxic â€œcauseâ€ â€” to reclaim the Old South, to reclaim the country, from an unwelcome human subgroup â€” but the solidarity in which he acted wasnâ€™t so much with his fellow racists as with the strategists and planners of war. Any war. Every war.
Perhaps this is why, when I hear Obama laud â€œthe outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and loveâ€ in the wake of the Charleston murders, I feel only despair as deep as a knife wound. War, not love, is structured into the nationâ€™s economic and social fabric. We invest trillions of dollars into its perpetuation, across Central Asia and the Middle East and wherever else the strategists and planners see evil, which is to say, opportunity.
Abstract Enemy and “Good Violence”
Every murderer believes the violence he is wielding is â€œgood violence.â€ Think Timothy McVeigh, whose fertilizer bomb killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He called his victims â€œcollateral damage,â€ co-opting the official language of the Gulf War in which he served. Mass murderers mimic and find their inspiration in the official wars we wage as a nation. Take away the massive public relations machinery that surrounds these wars and the deaths they cause are just as cruel, just as wrong. The abstract â€œenemyâ€ dead, in every case, turn out to be human beings, who deserved to live.
And every war and every mass murder spreads fear and hatred â€” and inspiration â€” in their aftermath. We canâ€™t go to war without spawning imitators. The next day,Â USA TodayÂ reported, the vigils at two South Carolina churches, in Charleston and Greenville, were disrupted by bomb threats and the churches had to be evacuated. So did Charlestonâ€™s county building.
â€œAt some point,â€ Obama said, â€œwe as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesnâ€™t happen in other places with this kind of frequency â€” and it is in our power to do something about it.â€
Until we begin demilitarizing our relationship with the world, such words uttered by presidents are as empty as the words Dylann Roof uttered in prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal ChurchÂ that fateful night.Î¦
Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is an award-winning Chicago journalist and editor.