>> Sunday, June 28, 2015
Is it still possible to stipulate that someone who murders nine people has something wrong with them? This used to be self-evident. Relatively well-adjusted people don't usually go around killing anyone, much less numerous anyones; when a person with a history of relative well-adjustment goes and kills someone we almost always look to a moment of imbalance--what pushed this person over the edge, what made them "snap"?
This isn't a comment at all on anyone else who might have some kind of disability or illness, who might be receiving treatment or in need of treatment. This isn't stigmatization. This is merely stating something that used to be obvious. Something that ratchets one way: someone receiving psychiatric treatment isn't one bad day from an unlawful killing, but surely someone who kills another without lawful excuse or justification ought to have been receiving some kind of preventative treatment.
I have seen, of course, quite a lot of people contest the above assertions. Denounce the merest suggestion that the young man who murdered nine people in a Charleston church was mentally ill. He wasn't diagnosed or in treatment, so far as we know, so how can we say he was mentally ill? Aside from taking that time he killed all those people as evidence of some extreme form of mental disturbance, that is?
Just as, naturally, I've seen a lot of people denounce the suggestion that this was in any way about the widespread availability of firearms, as if it were nearly as easy to kill one person--much less two, or three, or nine--with a tool that requires one to get up close to another person and exert oneself, as it is to kill as many persons as one has bullets with a tool that allows one to slowly walk around holding your arm out, working a little lever with your finger.
We are talking (by which I mean we aren't, but should be) about a trifecta. There are racists with guns who never hurt anybody. There are mentally ill racists who do little more than post hundreds of messages to the kinds of fringe social media websites the Southern Poverty Law Center tries to monitor. There are mentally ill people with guns who don't drive a hundred miles to terrorize one of the most important historically black churches in the United States, opting instead to shoot their parents or a schoolhouse or whomever the neighbor's dog told them to. What we have in Charleston is three-by-three, what happens when a mentally ill racist has easy access to firearms.
We Americans are stuck, right now, on guns. Perhaps we always will be. They aren't going away any time soon, and the Supreme Court has hampered any efforts to restrict the number of firearms in circulation. Any number of people have pointed out that the gun control laws in place and the gun control laws frequently proposed and most of the gun laws lately struck down wouldn't have kept a gun from the Charleston shooter. Perhaps they miss the point that if there were simply fewer guns all around, he might not have been able to get one, not even legally; or that if he'd only been able to get a long gun, having to openly tote it into a church would have made his intentions more obvious and frightening; or if he'd been restricted to a firearm with a much more limited rate of fire and/or limited magazine, his victims might have had more opportunities to escape or disarm him. After all, if you read the Second Amendment as a state right to militias instead of as a broad personal right to almost anything except possibly nuclear weapons, you could, maybe, limit firearms possession to the personal ownership of muzzle-loading flintlocks, or to the temporary possession of assault rifles checked out of the state armory for closely supervised militia drills, just to offer two extreme f'r'instances. But that's a dead issue, because that's certainly not how we read the Second Amendment, so you don't even need to argue with this paragraph if you're inclined to: if you disagree with everything I've said in it, congratulations, you've already won.
And we are stuck on mental illness. We don't appear to be particularly interested in diagnosing people, or in treating them, or (to be more precise) we don't appear to be interested in paying for it, which amounts to the same thing. Don't misunderstand me and think that I'm saying we could diagnose and treat every dangerously violent person in the country even if we spent the whole national budget on it. But since we're not inclined to spend much money diagnosing and treating any of them, the point seems moot, yes?
But perhaps we can do something about pervasive racism.
Here is the thing about the Charleston murderer (you'll have noted I've avoided his name, both because he hasn't been convicted--though it appears he's confessed and that his identity was never in much doubt--and because I take some small pleasure, frankly, in depriving him of his name): perhaps in a less-racist society, his obsessions would have taken a different turn---messages from the neighbor's dog, a cloud of ennui compelling him to the thought of using the schoolyard across the street for target practice. But in this society, his obsessions turned to "white pride" and the belief that black Americans were harming this country; that recent, highly-publicized incidents of white-on-black violence were somehow the victims' faults; and he expressed his obsession, not by immediately going out and murdering nine of his fellow human beings, but at first by decking himself out in the symbols and icons of racial supremacy--the Rhodesian flag, the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia--and by telling racist jokes and talking about killing blacks when he was drunk.
And this is the thing, the very worst thing about that: perhaps in a different, better place, decking oneself out in racist iconography and saying racist things would mark oneself as a potentially dangerous obsessive, would lead one's intimates to at least keep a watchful eye out and perhaps even contact the police, might (under the right set of circumstances) lead to one being involuntarily committed and evaluated to determine if one was mentally ill and dangerous to self or others (if one's conduct and language crossed the fine line between Constitutional guarantees of one's right to be an asshole and legitimately menacing society).
But in Twenty-First Century South Carolina, as in much of the United States, attitudes like the killer's are so commonplace in kind, if not necessarily degree, that his behavior was within the bounds of cultural norms.
That is, there's nothing unusual about a contemporary American saying racist things, and lots of Americans have racists symbols on their clothing, cars, and in their front yards; so maybe this guy's a little "Can't he talk about something else for a change?" but there's nothing that weird about him. CNN reports:
"They were just racist slurs in a sense," [someone who went to high school with the killer] said. "He would say it just as a joke. ... I never took it seriously, but now that he shed his other side, so maybe they should have been taken more seriously."
And why would you take him seriously? He sounds like lots and lots of people, only sometimes more so.
Surely that's something that ought to be changed?
And this is why taking the Confederate flag down from the South Carolina State House grounds, and off of shirts and toys, and taking it down anywhere else it appears, is a small victory. Very small. It's not that you take the thing away and suddenly centuries of institutionalized racism from race-based chattel slavery to Jim Crow to redlining to today vanishes in an instant as if it were never there. Nor is it only a small win because it no longer slaps African American citizens in the face (in the South, anyway, many black residents have gotten somewhat used to the damn old thing; it's complicated). It's a small win partly--actually, the word I'd prefer is largely--because its presence normalizes the things it represents in some circles, because tolerating it even under some pretense of "heritage" (and I've written about what I think of that recently) provides far too much cover for those who irrationally, obsessively, and (yes) sickly dangerous. Because there shouldn't be any question about whether the Charleston shooter was mentally ill or just some kind of "run-of-the-mill bigot," who didn't need to mask himself or exercise very much self-control because, frankly, he wasn't dressed strangely or saying anything you hadn't heard coming from the mouth of a family member or co-worker (or even thought or said yourself).
From everything I've read, he just sat out there in plain view until he decided to go a-killing.
I have a problem with that. You should, too.