Our nation is struggling to comprehend yet another horrific act of violence. We are searching for answers to understand what prompted a 21-year-old man to brutally murder nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, after the church had welcomed him into its Bible study group on the evening of June 17.
Much of the media coverage has focused on Dylann Roof's white supremacist Facebook posts and racially charged comments made before the shootings -- all of which reveal intense hatred that is hard to imagine in someone so young.
If early reports are accurate, Dylann Roof is another kid from another troubled family who fell through the cracks of our society. We know that he struggled with and never finished high school. It appears that he drifted, unemployed, living on his own from the time he was 15 years old. We know he had prior brushes with the law for trespassing and drug use, and it appears that he may have witnessed significant and frequent violence in the house he grew up in with his father and step-mother, who eventually separated in 2008.
Dylann Roof's defense team may attempt to use his background as they build their case to defend him, but it is unlikely to be a successful strategy. It does not appear that Dylann Roof was psychotic or delusional at the time of the shootings. It seems that he knew exactly what he was doing, and reports indicate that he has expressed no remorse for his actions.
But regardless of whether his background provides an effective legal defense, there are important lessons to learn from his story. Dylann Roof developed into an emotionally troubled young man who found an identity and a distorted sense of purpose in a belief system that fomented hate and glorified violence. And while we may never know the exact combination of factors that formed his character, it is very likely that the neglect and abuse he probably suffered during childhood set the stage for the expression of an ugliness that is difficult for most of us to imagine.
Dylann Roof must be held accountable for his actions. And our nation must continue discussions about gun control and race relations. But if our goal is to prevent future acts of violence -- if we hope to build healthier, more tolerant communities -- then we must also ask ourselves a very simple question. How did we fail the 15-year-old boy he once was? He wasn't born a killer and he wasn't born with the type of hatred that would later fuel the murder of six women and three men who happened to be African American. Whether or not we feel sympathy for him because of the depression, anxiety, loneliness, or torment he may have experienced growing up, our failure to pay attention to how he became a killer will prevent us from reaching other kids at risk of following a similar path.
We need to recognize this type of hatred for what it is, a sign of severe emotional disturbance. And we need to take more responsibility for those around us who seem to be suffering -- before their pain becomes unbearable and is turned inward against themselves or outward as it seemingly did with Dylann Roof. Think about this for a moment. Does someone who is mentally healthy commit unprovoked, premeditated murder? This type of overwhelming, all-consuming hatred cannot exist within an emotionally healthy human being.
Anger is a normal human emotion. And hatred can be an understandable reaction to abuse or trauma or loss. We can all imagine the hatred a victim might feel toward the rapist that attacked her or the rage a soldier might feel toward the insurgent who killed a battle buddy. As we heal through abuse or trauma or loss, we must move beyond hatred or we will most certainly become consumed by it. But if we are a 15-year-old kid living on the streets with little or no supervision, no guidance, and no love . . . if we find drugs and hatred before we find a healthy alternative, it is easy to imagine how hatred can twist our thoughts and shape our actions.
Some might accurately point out that not all kids from deprived or harsh backgrounds turn out to be racist or violent. Thankfully, we humans are complex creatures. Some of us have the capacity to overcome obstacles and find opportunities. But capacity doesn't equate with certainty, and not every kid has the right combination of internal resources and good luck that allow someone to overcome a lousy roll of the environmental, familial, or genetic dice.
Others might say that it isn't our responsibility to look out for, provide assistance to, or care about the kids who go astray or have severe emotional problems or who are abused and neglected. Ironically, had Dylann Roof wandered into the Emanuel AME church feeling scared and alone, the men and women he found there would have most certainly offered support, concern, and care. They would have accepted the responsibility for a lost soul and they would have responded to his suffering.
As we mourn the loss of those who died and we look for answers and hope for solutions, we have an opportunity, and perhaps an obligation. Future tragedies can be prevented if we pay attention to the signs of emotional suffering--in ourselves and those we love--and, if we take responsibility for reaching out to those in need, to those who are falling through the cracks. Children are not born hating themselves or others. It is our collective responsibility to give them other options.
Barbara Van Dahlen, named to TIME magazine's 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, is the founder and president of Give an Hour, a national nonprofit providing free mental health services to the military and veteran community. Give an Hour is now leading the Campaign to Change Direction, a collective impact effort to change the culture of mental health in America.
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