Last week, as most people will know, a man called Dylann Roof was arrested and charged with murder for shooting several people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.
The killings and the reaction to them, show something of the strange kind of society we live in. A comment that a friend posted on Facebook seems to encapsulate it:
Charleston killer says “I almost didn’t go through with it, because they were so nice to me.” It is very hard to know what emotion is appropriate when one hears this. I wish Roof could have been exposed to these parishioners of Emanuel a bit earlier in his life, in which case we might never have been reading about him at all.
Lord, have mercy!
Mass murders of this sort seem to have become so common in the USA that they no longer make front-page news, or have an impact on social media in South Africa. The news of Jacob Zuma’s question time in parliament and the Roman Pope’s encyclical on the environment seemed to provoke much more comment.
The killing in South Carolina did spark off some discussion in South Africa because the man accused of the murders, Dylann Roof, appeared in a picture sporting two flags that represent racist regimes of the past — South Africa before 1994, and Ian Smith’s UDI Rhodesia. That seems to indicate that he regarded white racism in southern Africa as a source of inspiration. So that throws the spotlight on South African white racism too.
The question of why he did it, and how you describe it has become a talking point. Was he a terrorist? Was he a lone loony? Was he mentally disturbed? Was it a “hate crime”? These questions, and the answers that people suggest, become a mirror of our society.
In South Africa we might say that he went te kere.
“Going te kere” is perhaps a strange expression, because it can mean anything from a parent giving a teenager a bollocking for staying out too late to mass murder. But “going te kere” means snapping, losing one’s temper, doing one’s nut. And the comment attributed to him at the beginning of this article indicates that he didn’t actually go te kere. He didn’t lose control. He had to force himself to carry out the killings that he had planned to do beforehand. The people were so nice to him that he had to deliberately suppress the temptation to be diverted from the task he had set himself, to repay love with hatred. In that sense, yes, it was a “hate crime”. But if that is so, it was not a crime inspired by an emotion of hate, but rather by a cold calculating effort of will, a dedication to an ideology of racial hatred.
Does this make his actions those of a social misfit, a lone wolf, someone so at odds with the values of society that he must be seen as a social menace, to be locked away?
I think that in many ways he is a reflection of the values of society. US President Barack Obama does the same thing as Dylann Roof is accused of doing, not as a once off attempt, but every week, sending out drones to kill people. He is not going te kere. It is a cold, calculated deliberate act. It is something that permeates society from top to bottom.
If we dismiss Dylann Roof’s actions as the acts of a madman, a social misfit, someone mentally disturbed, we can comfort ourselvs with the thought that we aren’t like that. There are people like us and there are people like him, and we are better off without people like him. But that is just the kind of thinking that drove him to do what he is alleged to have done.
All we can really say is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Such events also seem to provoke strange American rants about gun control. Graphics like those on the right start appearing on Facebook and other places on the web, and people rant about the evils of gun control.
I must confess that I don’t understand their point, and especially the point of images like the one of smashed cars. One would assume, from these pictures, that they think traffic control is as evil as gun control, that they are asking for the repeal of all traffic laws. I suppose the difference is that the US Constitution doesn’t guarantee people the right to own and drive cars.
But if you don’t object to traffic control, why object to gun control? They are actually very similar. I simply cannot understand why people apparently put up with one, and strenuously object to the other.
In a way that is incidental to the question of mass murder, except that whenever there is an incident of mass murder by shooting, the gun control freaks seem to come out of the woodwork. And in this case it is perhaps stranger still, because it seems that one of the charges against Dylann Roof is that he was in illegal possession of a firearm, which suggests that there is already a certain amount of gun control, at least in Chartleston, South Carolina.
This event is not something exceptional. It is something that the President of the USA does regularly and frequently with drones strikes. It is something that members of our South African Police Service did at Marikana, showing how little we have been transformed since the time of the apartheid state that Dylann Roof apparently admired. Transformation is something we talk about, but don’t often see.
So these murders are not the exceptional acts of a madman; they are a reflection of fallen human nature, a nature that we all share. And if that were the end of the story, there would be little hope for any of us. When we look at Dylann Roof, we cannot condemn him as an exception, and distance ourselves from him as if we were not like that. We pray before receiving holy communion, recalling that our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, “of whom I am first.” I am the first, not Dylann Roof, not Barack Obama, not Vladimir Putin, not Jacob Zuma, not Adolf Hitler. I am the first.
But fallen human nature is not the last word, and we can catch a glimpse of transformed human nature in the response of the families and survivors of the church shooting A Lesson on Forgiveness from the Families of the Charleston Shooting Victims- ‘We Forgive Him’:
The victim’s kins [sic] spoke to the killer and did something that most people would not have been able to do less than 48 hours of their loved ones murder- which was forgive Dylann.
Viewers watched as one, by one, sisters, children and grandchildren of all victims extended an olive branch from the depths of their souls, while they each forgave their late loved ones’ killer
Lord have mercy.