Mass shootings in the United States occur with soul-numbing frequency. In the last 30 years there have been at least 70. Occasionally, as with the massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary, or Virginia Tech, they are sufficiently appalling to be become lasting symbols of the ease with which deranged or hateful Americans can obtain weapons that kill large numbers of people quickly. Each outrage elicits despair and impassioned pleading for better gun control laws. Then Washington takes over and, most of the time, nothing changes.
President Obama was judiciously oblique when commenting on the shooting that killed nine churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. He connected the murders to “a dark part of our history” and said that he had had “to make statements like this too many times.” Indeed he has. There can be little doubt that the latest murders form part of the long, history of racial violence that remains a depressingly common feature of American life. The alleged shooter, after sitting among his victims’ prayer group for an hour, reportedly said that he was shooting them because: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” South African and Rhodesian flags were sewn into his jacket.
Much of the conversation on race in the US has focused on the readiness of law enforcement officers to use violence against unarmed black men. But America’s institutionalized racism remains evident in many other parts of the society. It is important to remember how recently racist sentiments could be expressed, unapologetically, in the country’s most exalted institutions. In The New Jim Crow, a study of how US mass incarceration disproportionately targets black Americans, Michelle Alexander recalls the Southern reaction to the Supreme Court’s decisions, 50 years ago, to desegregate education: “In Congress, North Carolina Senator Sam Erwin Jr drafted a racist polemic, ‘the Southern Manifesto,’ which vowed to fight to maintain Jim Crow by all legal means … [and a] fresh wave of white terror was hurled at those who supported the dismantling of Jim Crow… The Ku Klux Klan reasserted itself as a powerful terrorist organization, committing castrations, killings, and the bombing of black homes and churches.”
Terror is an important concept when discussing violence like this. If their media coverage is anything to go by, many Americans seem to believe that terrorism is the exclusive preserve of foreigners. Mass shootings carried out by Americans are invariably represented as the work of lone wolves, or madmen. This reluctance to call terror by its correct name prevents the American public, and legislature, from seeing a great deal of gun violence for what it is.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is an historic black institution. One of its founders, a former slave who purchased his freedom after winning a lottery, was later executed, along with more than 30 other Charlestonians, for planning a slave revolt. During its 200-year history the church’s services have been attended by such distinguished figures as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. “Mother Emanuel” has been a constant source of inspiration and spiritual renewal for countless African Americans. An attack on such sacred ground would undoubtedly, in most other countries, be called terrorism.
Part of what makes the ritual mourning of another American mass shooting so excruciating to watch is that the failure to address an incident like this within the context of racial violence, and to see it for the act of terror that it was intended to be, virtually ensures that there will be further tragedies that produce yet more grief, and heartfelt pleas for wiser legislation, but no practical solutions.