Questions About Charleston


The recent terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina, has warranted a variety of unsurprising responses. Among the various issues commentators are discussing (guns, flags, mental health, racism) is a debate about the language to use when discussing the attack. The terms “lone wolf” and “individual shooter” are popular to describe the attacker. It is rarer, however, to hear the phrase terrorist applied to Dylann Roof.

Roof walked into a historically black church, announced that he intended to kill black people, and murdered nine black civilians. He did not seem to target specific individuals but massacred a group of people. The location he chose was of historical and religious significance, and it has become apparent that he actively engaged white supremacist ideologies. Every fact of this case screams that Roof is a terrorist. My use of this term is not new or unique, and depending on what company you are in it may not be very radical.

But I’m reminded of another terrorist attack. Two brothers killed twelve people in Paris this past January. The contexts in both cases differ. The Paris attack targeted a newspaper for its conscious decision to portray the Prophet Muhammad; the French have a long history of politically oppressing Muslims abroad and domestically, which does not excuse the shooters but serves as a broader explanation for their motive. In contrast, the terrorist in Charleston targeted the historically oppressed population in the U.S., rather than the other way around. In the United States, racism has a painful history that I believe most Americans, namely white Americans, have yet to fully comprehend.

But both cases are terrorist attacks. The ideology the shooters in Paris carried with them did not come out of a void, but was inherited from other people and organizations. Similarly, the racism Roof harbors does not come out of a void. He also inherited it from the long-standing and violent presence of the KKK in the United States; he inherited it from a Confederacy of states who intended to maintain an economy on race-based slavery; he inherited it from five centuries of colonialism that built empires upon the backs of Africans in forced diaspora and cultural genocide; he inherited it from systemic racism that continues to lurch through American society in covert ways, in language and collective denial. Dylann Roof is in no way a lone wolf. He is the amalgamation of American racial hatred that is still alive and well. He is part of a system that produced him, and while he must be held accountable, so too must the society that created him. His intent was not only to murder individuals, but to assault the black community as a whole. What he did was an act of terrorism, and just because he’s not a Muslim does not mean we should refrain from using that term.

One thing that bothers me is how solidarity has become trendy, and by extension fleeting. Again, returning to the Charlie Hebdo attack, it became trendy to say Je Suis Charlie; it became trendy to oppose censorship, and then for a while it became trendy to critique Charlie Hebdo for its decision to deliberately mock Muslims (along with nearly every other religious group), but both instances ignored critical historical contexts (French imperialism, orientalism, the rise of anti-immigration and neo-fascist parties in Europe). But for months afterward, artists all around the world were expected to take a stand about Charlie Hebdo, to stand with those who died for their right to freedom of expression.

Fair enough, and I believe some good came out of that solidarity movement. I got involved in the fervor as well. I was angry, scared, confused. I wanted to write about it. Certainly it is unacceptable that a gun should be used as art criticism. The problem is that, in the wake of the solidarity movement, the violence did not end. The violence continued, but in other parts of the world. Boko Haram massacred students attending college in Garissa; the Taliban targeted people for trying to learn; a white man killed nine black churchgoers. Freedom of expression may not be at stake in each attack, but freedom always is. If we are to say we defend people’s rights all around the world, why do we only do so when it is popular to do so? Solidarity through twitter and social media, sometimes called clicktivism, may be useful in spreading information and awareness, but it must never be confused with actual activism.

We’ve collectively moved on from the Charlie Hebdo attack. We’ve drawn our cartoons praising artists and criticizing barbarism. Now we no longer feel compelled to write, to draw, to sing, even though the terrorism continues. And with a few crucial exceptions, Dylann Roof and the Kouachi brothers committed the exact same crime. The only real difference I can see is that Roof now has the privilege of people trying to take the blame away from him by pinning the issue on guns or psychology or upbringing. Perhaps even worse, he alone must bear responsibility while everybody else who is a part of his ideology, the entirety of the United States, its history of trauma and its ongoing racism, can walk away blameless.

So what can I do? I can educate myself and change the way I approach this attack. I can suggest that we address this for what it is, a terrorist attack rooted in systemic issues, and I can attempt to draw attention to those systemic issues. I can explore and identify the historical contexts, I can write poems of solidarity and short stories that tackle racism in U.S. society at all levels. I can write with candor or try to use metaphor. But will it do any good? I’m tired of seeing solidarity become a fleeting trend. I’m tired of seeing white people taking selfies at predominantly black protests against racial profiling among police officers, #LoveMeI’mALiberal.  I’m tired of my communities looking at French victims as more worthy of their outrage than African victims in Garissa or African-American victims in Charleston. But I don’t know what more I can do. All I know is that it is not enough.

Today is Sunday. Today sermons are pouring out like the sun. Maybe, with a little grace, we as a group will move. We are, after all, a giant group and not a chessboard of scattered individuals. Our movements are shaped by those of others; our propulsion is dependent upon that of others. If Roof is not the sole root of the problem, I cannot be the sole root of the solution. We are a collective in crisis. I praise the artistic momentum in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, but I lament how quickly that momentum diminished. Perhaps, this Sunday morning, I can only meditate over a very tiny sermon from a great American teacher.

“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

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