The mass murder of AME church members in Charleston is horrible. But is it really unexpected? History is filled with the tragic murders of innocents. The Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda are large-scale genocides sanctioned by the powers that be. Evil. Disturbing. Disgusting. On American soil, mob lynchings have been part of our history since our earliest days (along with burnings at the stake and bombings), also sanctioned more or less by the powers that be.
Over the years, we’ve had our share of “lone wolves ” who have murdered en mass. Many of these have been forgotten, along with lessons that could have been learned. In 1949, Harold Unruh, a World War 2 vet shot 13 people as he walked down the street. He used a German Luger. I’m sure the fatalities would have been higher had he possessed the automatic weapons common today. In 1966 Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother in Texas before killing 16 and wounding 30 from his perch atop the clock tower on the U T Austin campus. The Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in 1995 left 168 adults and children dead. Still resonating in our recent memories are Columbine, 1999, Fort Hood, 2009, Aurora 2012, and Sandy Hook, 2012. We should not forget another 2012 shooting that took place in a house of worship when white supremacist, Wade Michael, opened fire in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin. He killed 6 people and wounded 4. All of these are disturbing. Disgusting. How can we qualify one as worse? Is it the number killed? The race, religion, sex, occupation of the victims? The presence of children? The site of the carnage?
I don’t know and don’t care. Each caused immeasurable heartache and loss. Each shocked us momentarily. Each sent us searching in different directions for “reasons” that might have prevented what occurred and what would occur in the future too many times.
Perhaps it is more constructive to focus on the common threads. They are all “hate” crimes. They were all perpetrated by the severely, violently mentally ill . There were multiple lessons to be learned if we looked past simple answers and outcries.
At this point in our evolution (or de-evolution), there are countless racists, sexists and anti-Semites out there along with a vast range of other “anti”_______ (fill in the blank.) groups. This is part of the human condition. People seem to be hard-wired, taught and reinforced to stick with the familiar and reject what is perceived as “other”. The “Media” feeds into this in subtle and not so subtle ways by creating our exemplars of beauty, happiness, health, faithfulness, patriotism… and we internalize those images until they change. We fool ourselves into believing these are constants, not based on what sells, what we want to hear.
Identifying with the familiar and casting out the “other” is our obsession. It makes us feel connected, helps us understand our place in a confusing universe. It also leads to prejudice, partisanship , bias and hatred. Any time we identify exclusively with one group we are separating ourselves from others. Not good, even when it seems righteous. I encountered some of the worst racists, anti-Semites and homophobes in houses of worship.
As a result, kernels of hatred are deeply embedded in far too many people.
What separates these quietly hateful Americans (who are dangerous) from the mass murderers is the latter’s complete disregard for human life, centered on the belief that the lives of “others” don’t matter. The rules that govern society don’t apply to them. There is a compulsion to act to right perceived wrongs. Whatever it is labelled (antisocial , narcissistic, borderline, paranoid) it is a personality disorder in the extreme that is chronic, rare and hard to treat. Its genesis may be genetic, environmental and a combination of both.
This is not about creating a new stereotype for us to grab onto as we try to make sense of the senseless violence in Charleston. Let me be clear. .. the vast majority of people suffering with personality disorders are NOT violent, or dangerous. Put aside that stereotype.
Nor am I not suggesting that “mental illness” is the sole reason for mass murder, but I do believe that all people who murder strangers ( or anyone) because they are black, gay, Jewish, Christian, children, watching Batman… are severely mentally ill. The media might focus on the racial motivation for this latest horror. While this is a fact, it should not be the exclusive rallying point because that would divert attention away from what might be just as horrifying. Marches to promote tolerance, calls to end violence, and a serious re-think about flying a confederate flag over South Carolina’s statehouse are necessary. We must do these things to combat our fear and ignorance of the perceived “other”. To blame the tragedy in Charleston on racism is just as simplistic and doomed to failure as a call to end bullying in the aftermath of Columbine. The problems are deeper . Going back to common threads, like most mass murderers , Dylann Roof harbored an irrational, twisted and sick hatred for people he viewed as “other” . He believed there was some perceived threat. He felt compelled to act. He had access to a weapon. Those facts scare the hell out of me.
Dylann Roof and his ilk are scary because there is little we can do without this getting uncomfortably personal. He lived in a small community, attended school, bought a gun and devised a plan anonymously. But no one questioned his long standing issues in school, his inability to make friends, his lack of direction, possible drug use, and increasingly hateful rants on Facebook. Friends and neighbors are Monday morning quarterbacks, expressing knowledge about his “strangeness” and wishing they had intervened. They will live with that guilt.
The solution is not only about rallies and speeches. It’s not only about gun-control and white supremacy hate sites. A real solution has to insure that children, teens and adults with severe mental illnesses are given appropriate treatment early and consistently, and are monitored and nurtured within the family, community and school. It is about connection rather than alienation. If we can’t deal with getting personal and getting involved, tragic shootings will continue to part of our times. And just think…as you read this, a child (or a thousand children) are quietly morphing into mass murderers. And no one really cares until it makes headlines.