I’ve never visited Charleston, S.C. My perspective and reflection is limited by my experience — like everyone else.
As I listened to the reports and read articles, comments and threads popping up all over the Internet and social media, I repeatedly heard an act of terrorism was committed. Some things may be uncertain. But, this fact is not. For many this was the act of a terrorist.
To which I ask: Was it?
Make no mistake, this was a horrible atrocity. I have no desire to dismiss this fact. Tragedies should probably never be compared as there is a risk in devaluing an atrocity or loss. But, in some ways this act seems worse than the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.
Dylann did not commit this act of violence from a distance where he wouldn’t have to look into the eyes of his victims. He walked in. He took a seat. He listened to their voices. He began to know the individual tones, their mannerisms. And then he decided to silence them.
I want to label him a terrorist, his actions a terrorist act, because then it would be simpler. Then I could dismiss him, his actions, and go on about my routine.
In a post-9/11 society I am encouraged to think of a terrorist and terrorism as a hostile threat from the outside, an other which when labeled needs no further explanation. By labeling him a terrorist I no longer need to see him as a human being. These are the actions of evil. No need to wrestle with any deep questions. The case is closed. Condemn him and move on.
And this is why I refuse to label Dylann a terrorist. This is not the work of a hostile threat from the outside. Dylann was born and raised in the United States of America. He went to elementary school and most likely recited the Pledge of Allegiance like me. He graduated from high school, not in a foreign country, but here. If you compared his DNA with mine or any other human, our molecular structure would come back the same — homo sapien.
This was not the work of evil. This was the work of a United States citizen. If this does not give me pause — pause to ask deep existential questions about the what, why and how — then I should probably question my own humanity.
What in our society contributed to his hatred and desire to commit this brutal act?
Why does hatred, racism and violence of this nature continue to find life in our country?
How do I be proactive going forward, instead of reactive, or worse yet, inert and apathetic?
In J.J. Abrams’s 2013 Star Trek: Into Darkness, Captain James T. Kirk, played by Chris Pine, delivers a brilliant line in a speech towards the end of the movie. Kirk states, “There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves.” It’s possible the removal of the Confederate flag is a proactive step in the right direction. But I have my doubts.
Until it is recognized that the problem is as much inside of me as it is outside I doubt lasting, meaningful change will be possible. I would like to think if I was born in the South before the start of the Civil War I would have protested the slavery of African Americans. I’m skeptical, though. Racism was not born in a vacuum. One of the factors which made slavery possible before and during the Civil War was the economy of the South — which by no means am I justifying what was done. The plantations thrived with access to a work force they didn’t compensate.
In my own time I am complicit in a system which thrives on having access to cheap goods. A direct result of a cheap labor force which works in less than ideal circumstances for wages I wouldn’t accept. I cringe if my grocery bill takes more out of my pocket than I want. It means less money for other items. And so, I contribute to the all-too-often low compensation farmers earn for their hard work, making it almost impossible for anyone but those who own or rent large swaths of land to make a living farming.
It would be easy for me to label Dylann a terrorist. As tempting as it is, I cannot. This would allow me to go back to my regular schedule and not ponder the continued problems of violence, hatred and racism found in our culture. Solutions should be sought; they must be. Solutions I have no doubt will require a public willingness to have hard conversations and dialogue. Even more so, it will require a journey inwards.