Death in Charleston: a Moderately Speculative Post-Mortem
The pale young man with the bowl haircut had driven to Charleston, South Carolina, alone and armed, with a singleness of purpose. There, in the centuries-old port city with its graceful antebellum townhouses and slender church spires, he would attempt to make his mark, consummate his desires, fulfill his earthly purpose.
He stepped inside the sanctuary of historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he joined a weekly Bible study and prayer meeting. The twelve already assembled there must have wondered, at least briefly, about the motives of the stranger who took the thirteenth seat, but they welcomed him all the same.
They were brothers and sisters in Christ, and the stranger’s complexion was no impediment to Christian fellowship. As the group prayed and pondered over their beloved ancient scriptures, the pale young man must have been thinking other thoughts.
They’re friendly and welcoming enough, but I have to accomplish my mission. The blacks are ruining this country, dragging us down to their level… infecting us with their primitive culture… committing acts of violence against whites that never get covered in the news. But let one white guy kill a black guy, and all hell breaks loose. Blacks just aren’t capable of being objective… they see everything through the lens of race, and they constantly make whites out to be villains.
The kid might have been a high school dropout, but he was a Deep Thinker. His sensitive, half-educated mind could detect the unfairness of news stories cherry-picked to promote a perpetual black-victimhood/white-guilt narrative, starting with the Trayvon Martin case. So the introspective boy who had once counted blacks among his friends cast his lot with the white supremacists, the Ku Kluxers, the diehard Confederates, the wingnut militiamen ready to take on the liberal establishment with their guns and their demented passion. He went over to America’s dark side.
For the pale young man, there was no middle ground. Moderate viewpoints carry no weight in polarized times, while extremism stirs the blood and validates our prejudices. Few of us have the time or inclination to analyze endless shades of gray. We tend to like our ideas neatly pre-packaged in bold black and white.
Just as important, there was no safe outlet in America for rational discussions of race from a white perspective. Anyone who dared defend white people in polite company was automatically branded as racist and promptly ostracized. The pale young man probably wasn’t even aware of that unwritten rule, but his instincts told him he’d find kindred spirits among the militant white reactionaries. After frequenting a white supremacist website and writing his own resentful manifesto, the pale young man had become a time bomb.
I can’t stand it anymore. This is OUR country, and the blacks are having their way with us. Nobody’s doing anything about it… so I have to do it myself.
He sat there for an hour, in the company of the gentle black Christians who had welcomed him and tried to bond with him over shared Bible verses and prayers. You’d think he would have noticed their warmth and hospitality, their humanity, their individual voices and personalities during the hour he spent with them. You’d think he would have been moved.
I’ve seriously pre-judged these people. What was I thinking? They’re kind and decent. I’m glad I came down here and entered their church after all. Now I’ll head back home with a fresh perspective. Sure, we have bad apples of both races, but these folks give me hope that the good will overcome the bad.
But instead, there came the dreadful snap. Brandishing a handgun he had concealed during the prayer meeting, the pale young man shouted: “I am here to shoot black people. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go!”
You already know the rest: nine black people dead — three men and six women. Four of the victims were clergy, including the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor of Emanuel A.M.E. Church. He had served in the South Carolina state legislature since he was 22 and appeared to have a bright future in public life.
During the media frenzy that followed, the designated pundits dealt us the usual punditry: mass shootings as a uniquely American sickness (they overlook Anders Breivik’s bloody rampage in Norway), the need for gun control (too late — there are already 300 million guns in circulation!), the hateful symbolism of the Confederate battle flag (yes, it needs to be retired from public life, but it’s not all about racism), the semantics of the shooting (hate crime or terrorism? does it matter?), the too-easy insanity defense for white (but not black) criminals, and, of course, the ongoing victimization of black people by white people.
My own thoughts centered around one perplexing unexamined mystery: why do the perpetrators of mass shootings almost always turn out to be alienated young white males with limited prospects? Black men may commit more gun crimes per capita, but we rarely see them unleash pent-up furies by mowing down multiple strangers in the ghastly manner of an Adam Lanza, Jared Lee Loughner, James Holmes or the aforementioned Mr. Breivik.
I’m no believer in “white male privilege” — you’d have a hard time convincing a West Virginia coal miner that he and his boys are more privileged than a black doctor’s daughter who gets admitted to Harvard. But I’m suspecting there might be an element of perceived entitlement that drives young white men to insanity when they hit a brick wall. We expect white guys to succeed; in fact, we almost demand it of them.
So what happens to the ill-favored white male rejects and underachievers? Most them simply carry on, but a select few never recover from their beating. Thwarted, exasperated, doomed to failure (and painfully aware of it), they react by fuming at the world and finding convenient scapegoats. Think of young Hitler, a competent budding artist rejected twice by the academy in Vienna. Think of the pale young man in South Carolina — a reasonably intelligent fellow who couldn’t finish high school and purportedly watched a black guy walk off with a girl he fancied. It drives them mad.
Young black men are more accustomed to being thwarted, so they’re probably less inclined to boil inwardly and explode lethally when life doesn’t deliver for them. Nobody promised them glory in this world, and they face their fate with equanimity. Or they join gangs that promise them the thrill of power and illicit income. Either way, their minds don’t ferment slowly in their own juices.
A personal note: For the first time since the killing of Trayvon Martin generated the narrative of the innocent black male victim, I’ve begun to feel genuinely protective toward African Americans. When I heard a black protestor raise the doleful question, “Are we safe anywhere?” I immediately understood and sympathized. They’re harassed by cops, murdered regularly on their streets, and now slaughtered in the sanctuary of their church. Where can they go to feel safe in this world? How do they protect their children?
The victims in Charleston weren’t assaulting cops or resisting arrest. They were model citizens with charity in their hearts, and still they died. And when they died, their survivors didn’t take to the streets to loot and burn. They reached out to the white South Carolinians who reached out to them. Then, much like the ancient Galilean they venerate, they forgave the pale young man for his unforgivable deed.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.