The terrible mass shooting of black elders at what is perhaps America’s preeminent African-American church sends off too many messages at once about our racially charged culture to make for any decent response. The numbness and horror will have to be dealt with first, and the issues parsed one by one. What is clear is that we have entered a period of racial violence such as we haven’t seen since the ’60s. We are sitting on a national tinderbox.
At this point, public reaction has crystallized around the Confederate battle flag that flies on the grounds of South Carolina’s state capitol in Columbia, and that until about 15 years ago flew from the statehouse itself.
But, say, didn’t the Confederacy lose the Civil War 150 years ago? Don’t rebel flags come down with military surrender?
The answer is yes, and down they did come — until 1961, the centenary of the war, when South Carolina legislators put the battle flag back up as a gesture of defiance to the federal government and the emerging challenge to Jim Crow segregation across the South.
I know what Abraham Lincoln would have done if that had happened on his watch. I’m pretty sure what would have happened if President Dwight Eisenhower, who knew a thing or two about taking down enemy flags, had still been president in 1961. But Jack and Robert Kennedy decided to look the other way, not yet having the modicum of backbone finally instilled in them by Martin Luther King. Lyndon Johnson chose to pick his fight with the Viet Cong, and then came the great backlash under Nixon, as the South went Republican and the Grand Old Party struck its long and continuing bargain with the devil in exchange for its votes. The flag flew.
Does it matter that it still does? Of course it does. When the national and state flags went down to half-mast over the shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Confederate flag flew triumphantly high alongside South Carolina’s capitol. Yes, indeed, the South had risen again, in all the swelling pride of an unrepentant slave state affirming, for all to see, the glory of its “heritage”: hatred, bigotry, human exploitation, as well as the nullification of black dignity and life.
Do we really want the South to win the Civil War after all? Sounds a lot like it.
If I were Barack Obama, I’d have sent troops to Columbia to pull that flag down, the way Eisenhower sent his marshals into Little Rock to enforce the Supreme Court’s school desegregation order in 1957. If that didn’t do the trick, I would have sent William Tecumseh Sherman back to South Carolina to do the job he did on it in 1864 all over again. And if South Carolina wanted to secede from the Union again, I’d be the first to tow it out to sea. I’ve spent enough of my life sharing my citizenship with people who think that slavery was and probably still is God’s ordinance.
I’m not Barack Obama, of course, and so I didn’t pull that flag down. I didn’t come down to Charleston to commiserate with the survivors of Dylann Roof’s massacre and to lead a grand march affirming the values that hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their lives for. I didn’t even send Joe Biden, my designated mourner. I didn’t do anything but mumble a few chill and distant words about “violence,” and have an aide reference some remarks I made eight years ago about Confederate flags belonging in museums.
If the presidency is, at least in a symbolic sense, the moral center of the country, then that center is vacant. And that has really caught up with us now.
When Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama ventured to say that if his children had been male, they would probably have looked like him. It was a vaguely empathetic remark and it might have passed as personal. Of course, Martin’s slaying was a local jurisdictional matter, and the federal government had no say in it — even though the Justice Department would, without excuse, usurp Massachusetts’ jurisdiction in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev terrorist trial.
Trayvon Martin’s case was an unheeded wake-up call. Whatever its legal disposition, it needed to begin an urgent conversation on race and violence against young black men by police and auxiliary forces, many of them armed to the nines by Obama’s Pentagon.
Obama made no effort to lead such a conversation. He has given no national speech as killing has succeeded killing. He’s evidently got more important things to do, like ramming a corporate trade deal down our throats or gratifying the ayatollahs in Tehran, or maybe just playing golf. On what has become the defining issue of his presidency, though — the one you knew all along was coming, sooner or later — he has been strictly AWOL. I can’t think of a more pathetic moral abdication, or one that will cost this country more.
Meanwhile, what may not be the least of the damages inflicted by the Emanuel AME Church shootings is that to our criminal law itself. I’ve seen numerous calls, as I’m sure you have, for Roof to be charged with “hate crimes” as well as multiple homicides, or under federal domestic terrorism statutes. This is a whole class of specious justice that has sprung up in recent decades, particularly in the wake of 9/11.
The concept of a hate crime is legally and morally incoherent. Hate is not itself a crime, any more than any other thought or sentiment that may seem repugnant, subversive, or otherwise unconducive to right thinking and good public order. Roof’s crime was not to hate African-Americans, but to kill them, and that he killed them with hateful intent adds nothing but circumstance to acts that in and of themselves carry the maximum penalty of the law. We may wish to consider intent in weighing culpability, in assessing felonious penalty and in weighing mercy.
But to consider state of mind as a separately felonious act, an aspect of felony itself, is to criminalize thought. The whole burden of the Anglo-American legal tradition is that a felony is a legally punishable act, that without the act no crime is committed, and that the punishment cannot exceed the maximum penalty stipulated for the act. Only tyrannies want to go further than that.
“Domestic terrorism” is a similarly slippery concept. Although South Carolina’s governor, Nikki Haley, has already tried, convicted and sentenced Roof (to death) — they do do things differently in the South, don’t they? I prefer to wait for the trial. One thing, though, that seems reasonably clear at this point is that Roof acted alone, on his own initiative, and without co-conspirators of any kind.
A terrorist, to my understanding, is one who acts feloniously with or on behalf of others in pursuit of a shared goal founded in intimidation or violence. Roof had no sponsors or accomplices of any kind, and if he came to his views by imbibing the atmosphere of hatred so prevalent in his environment, that will not inculpate any others not directly connected with him or directly inciting his behavior.
He needs (presuming his sanity) to be tried on a strictly legal basis, on nine individual counts of homicide, no more and no less. The moral reflection that will hopefully grow out of it — with or without Barack Obama — is ours to make.