Roof wasn’t a lone wolf

It was racism rather than lax gun controls that led to the church shootout.

By Mahir Ali

Published: Wed 24 Jun 2015, 10:12 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

In Charleston, South Carolina, last Wednesday, Dylann Roof spent an hour in a Bible study class with a dozen or so parishioners before declaring, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”

He took out his gun and murdered nine people, reportedly reloading his weapon five times. When he asked one of the women whether she had been shot and she responded in the negative, he said that was good because he needed someone to relate what had occurred. He suggested that suicide was part of his plan, but evidently did not have the courage to follow through.

Roof was taken into custody in the wake of what was inevitably branded a hate crime, but the reluctance to describe it as an act of terrorism has sparked a debate in the United States. Many commentators have designated it as such, decrying attempts to pass Roof off as merely a lunatic.

A twisted mentality is not in doubt, though. But then again, that surely applies in all cases where individuals, whatever their motivation, snuff out multiple lives on a whim. It makes little sense to call it terrorism only if the perpetrator’s skin is brown.

Mass killings more obviously qualify as terrorism if ideology plays a role, and in the case of Roof it obviously did. He had let it be known that he wanted to spark a race war. He wasn’t, as far as anyone has thus far been able to tell, formally affiliated with an organisation such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), but he bought into its mindset.

The basis of his antipathy to a particular race was apparently reinforced by “information” gleaned from a website operated by the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC), whose president, Earl Holt, a generous contributor to Republican presidential campaigns, has said he wasn’t surprised by this as the CofCC’ reports race relations “accurately and honestly”.

Perhaps no one directly conspired with Roof in the run-up to the massacre he committed, but that’s hardly sufficient to designate him a lone wolf. After all, the mentality that led him to take innocent lives is not exactly a marginal phenomenon — especially in the deep south.

It is manifested, inter alia, in the fact that the South Carolina state house proudly flies the Confederate flag, which represents the separatists, defeated in battle 150 years ago, who sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives in their quest to preserve slavery. South Carolina, in fact, was the very state where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired, and many of its streets are named after Confederate soldiers.

In most other countries with a disputed past where the defeated side is believed to represent forces that would be deemed unacceptable in the present day, it is inconceivable that comparable insignia could officially be demonstrated with impunity. Could any state legislature in Germany, for example, even consider raising the Nazi flag?

The comparison is not as odious as it might seem. Pictures of Roof have appeared on the Internet that show him waving the Confederate flag, burning the Stars and Stripes, and attired in clothes bearing the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. He is also reported to have posed for pictures in a T-shirt displaying the number 88, which The New York Times describes as white supremacist code for “Heil Hitler”.

He obviously wasn’t born with the kind of prejudice that led him to last week’s crime. It was inculcated by the environment in which he grew up. The fact that he was able to convert a 21st birthday gift into a lethal .45, no questions asked, is appalling in several respects, but it was racism rather than lax gun controls that led him to contemplate and then perpetrate an unspeakably vile act.

As President Barack Obama has appropriately pointed out, “You don’t see this kind of murder, on this scale, with this kind of frequency in other advanced countries on earth.” There was also considerable poignancy in his claim that he has been obliged to make such statements far too often.

America’s atrocious gun laws, based on a misreading of the second constitutional amendment, are however only one part of the problem in this context. Racism and the legacy of slavery also have much to do with American exceptionalism. The claim that the Obama presidency represented a post-racial society has turned out to be egregiously false. In fact, there is plenty of cause to fear that a black man’s tenancy of the White House has exacerbated the tendencies that drive racism.

Much has undoubtedly changed in America in the 50 years since the Voting Rights Act and, before that, the Civil Rights Act. But all too much hasn’t, and it manifests itself in stupendous rates of African-American incarceration, in random homicides by police, and in the Charleston atrocity, which echoes a long history of violence against black churches, partly on account of the fact that many of them have inevitably been imbued with elements of liberation theology.

The Charleston massacre has attracted any number of laments, many of them heartfelt. Whether it will change anything remains an open question.

Mahir Ali is a Sydney-based journalist

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