A sleepless night; a morning torn between tears of rage and grief. I should not be writing, but I am. I want to say three things. What I say will perhaps be intemperate, but at least it will be honest.
One: this is terrorism. Even given the countless ways in which the label of “terrorism” has been warped, abused, and cynically evacuated of meaning over the past decade-and-a-half, refusing to call this what it is is intellectually and morally indefensible. If anything was ever terrorism, this is. If this is not terrorism, than nothing ever was. This is white supremacist terrorism, and terrorism made possible by white supremacy. Full stop.
Two: the impulse to narrowly pathologize the shooter serves the interests of white supremacy. If, once the identity of the shooter is known, we roll out a tired, ready-made media narrative that solely focuses on his background, upbringing, personal frustrations, and other life details – in short, that paints him as a mentally ill “lone wolf” – then shame on us. This framing not only slanders the mentally ill, who are vastly more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, but it also ignores the fact that the term “lone wolf” is not an exculpatory psychological explanation. The historical origin of the contemporary phrase refers to an explicit strategy for recruiting and mobilizing terrorists. And not just any terrorists either: the first self-described “lone wolf” terrorists were proudly white supremacist ones. And yet now, when media figures and politicians use the phrase to talk about white mass murderers (but not, tellingly, those supposedly “radicalized” by Islamic fundamentalism) they do so to effectively obscure their shared racist ideology and instead beguile us into focusing on them narrowly as merely misguided or tragically demented individuals. In other words, it’s about whitewashing, and like all whitewashing, it preserves and protects white supremacy.
All this is because, three: We pathologize individual white terrorists so we don’t have to talk about the collective terroristic pathology of white supremacy itself. In May, a group of openly armed white men picketed a mosque in Arizona and menaced and harassed the congregants. Now, another armed white man has decided to murder nine people inside an African Methodist Episcopal Church. Once we know more, when the shooter is apprehended, or killed, or tried, we can talk about pathology, fine. But then, and now, we need to be talking first and foremost about another pathology – not an individual pathology, but a collective one. And this conversation shouldn’t be for purposes of exculpation: it should be about indictment. Because how many more places of worship need to be desecrated with the tears and blood of other human beings before White America shows at least some bit of spine and confronts what it has wrought, what it will not stop wreaking, and what is consuming what we have left of a soul from within? If we do not confront this, then we are a sick and broken people, and if the judgment of history shows us any mercy, we will not have deserved it.
*Update, 2:15 PM.
I wrote the above at around eight this morning and posted it a bit before nine. Since then, the alleged shooter has been identified as a twenty-one year-old man named Dylann Storm Roof, and has been captured in North Carolina. Descriptions of events inside the Church have also become available. Per the New York Times:
The gunman walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after 8 p.m., and the first call to police came shortly after 9 p.m. Among the dead was the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, pastor of the church, who was also a state senator. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Mr. Pinckney, told NBC News that she had spoken with a survivor of the shooting who told her the gunman reloaded five times. The survivor, she said, told her that the gunman had entered the church and asked for the pastor. Then he sat next to Mr. Pinckney during the Bible study before opening fire. “I have to do it,” the gunman was quoted as saying. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
The alleged gunman (Roof) walked into a place sacred to other human beings. They welcomed him among them. He sat with them as they prayed. And then he murdered them in cold blood. I cannot bear to imagine this scene; the mind reels. South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley appears to sympathize, stating that: “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
At face value, this strikes a chord: some things some people do, we will never understand. When it is not being marshaled as a distraction, as a sideshow to keep us from confronting white supremacy, even the most astute psychopathological workup of a single individual can only ever take us so far. Haley’s brief statement seems to gesture at this, asking us to see what happened in the Church as a “senseless tragedy.” Senseless: beyond comprehensibility, beyond reason itself — not an act of political violence or the recognizable product of an ideology historically cultivated and shared by more than a single, deranged person.
And yet: In the photo accompanying the NYT piece, Roof appears wearing a jacket stamped with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and the defunct white supremacist Republic of Rhodesia. According to the relayed witness testimony, during his attack, the shooter invoked one of the most durable and vile tropes of the American white supremacist imaginary, straight out of The Birth of a Nation. He also essentially articulated an agenda of ethnic cleansing in the name of nationalist irredentism. And he did all this while assassinating a black State Senator and eight other people inside the Emanuel AME Church.
Sometimes you do not have to understand the why of a thing to recognize it for what it is. Pathologizing Roof as an individual is besides the point here, because what we recognize in him is nothing unfathomably inscrutable at all. It is actually very, very familiar, and the pathology in question implicates all of us insofar as it is the pathology of white supremacy itself. So the questions then become: how up-front are we willing to be about this, and about ourselves — and what are we going to do about it?