Post-Charleston, Ferguson, Newtown: How "Advanced" Is America?

06/30/2015 11:02 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2016

In the early aftermath of the massacre of nine African-American parishioners, including their pastor, gunned down by a white male shooter in their house of worship, Charleston's Emanuel A.M.E. Church, a sorrowful President Barack Obama posed this challenge in his White House press conference:

"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it."

What marks a country as advanced? More than the technological achievements of working lights and running faucets, the mark of an advanced society is reflected in its adherence to high principles, its moral character, its striving for excellence, and its commitment to the general welfare. At the least, every one of its citizens should feel safe in his home, in the streets, and certainly in his place of worship.

We Americans think of ourselves as advanced, at least technologically. The images of the first man on the moon, put there by American ingenuity and organization less than 200 years after the country's founding, can still thrill.

But many of us are keenly aware that vital threads in the social fabric have come unstrung, and, unstrung, threaten to unravel the whole. Place names evoke atrocity. Ferguson and Baltimore: the killing of unarmed black men by white police. Newtown: the massacre of small schoolchildren by a deranged shooter (also here). Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora: more massacre by the deranged. Along with place names, we remember the names of the dead: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner.

After each of these atrocities, the call goes out for a reckoning---but little comes of it.
Perhaps the massacre in Charleston, with its trifecta of lethal elements---guns, race hatred, and, new to the mix, white supremacy---will spur the public, heartbroken and weary over this cavalcade of death, to press for action.

Gun control. Really, action on this matter should be compelling by now. How much carnage must we bear? As the President put it post-Charleston, "Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."

While there's now a rush to gun stores to arm up, as occurred after other massacres, and while support for gun rights has steadily increased in recent years (also here), there is nevertheless strong public support for various safety measures to control those rights. A recent PEW poll shows 85% of those polled approve of background checks for gun sales and 80% feel people with mental illness should not be able to buy guns (though why both figures aren't 100% is a mystery). And it's nonsense to hold, as Republicans do, that mental illness is more the problem than guns. It's not either-or, but both-and: We can attend to both---gun control and mental illness.

Other countries view America as barbaric, hardly advanced, in the carnage we permit---and they are right: The carnage is barbaric. As The Washington Post wrote post-Charleston in support of the President:

"It isn't an accident that massacres like this one are extremely rare in other advanced countries that don't fetishize gun ownership the way we do. Believe it or not, there are violent people in England or Romania or Japan, but without our ready access to guns, the damage they do is limited."

While the President's challenge about advanced nations referred specifically to gun violence, the following two elements of the Charleston massacre certainly factor into a consideration of whether a nation is advanced or not.

Race hatred. While it is the case---a proud case---that as a nation America has made great progress in civil rights, most notably when a majority of voters elected an African-American to the White House but also, significantly, re-elected him to a second term, it also appears to be the case that certain segments of our society take vicious exception to this progress, and have become more blatant in the Obama era.

Obama-hatred, breathtaking in its virulence, has not been sufficiently combatted by Democrats; they should reform altogether. Some want Mr. Obama to be more "out there" on race, and since Charleston he has, notably in his eulogy for the murdered pastor, Clementa Pinckney. But to become perceived as "the angry black man" in the White House could risk making the race issue all about him, rather than the collective problem it properly is.

Republicans were hesitant to attribute the Charleston massacre to race hatred. But when a white man walks into a black church and murders black people, what other interpretation is there? Masters of subtle race-baiting, Republicans must, as The New York Times delicately puts it, "carefully calibrate" their words both to "appeal to minorities while also energizing white conservatives." As The New Yorker writes, Republicans, who

"rely heavily on the votes of white southerners....have sometimes been driven to cultivate support among gun groups, anti-immigrant groups, 'patriot' groups, and other inflammatory organizations that cluster around the right fringes of their party and beyond. And even when they aren't actively courting these entities, many prominent Republicans have been reluctant to say anything that could incur their wrath."

White supremacy. This is the new element in the mix---white supremacy: the ugliest face of race hatred (also here)---thrust to the fore by the Charleston shooter who, before killing the black parishioners, recited the white supremacist cant, "You are raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." Photos of the shooter with the Confederate battle flag and the emblems of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia confirm the connection. Bubbling under the surface for decades and growing increasingly rancid, white supremacist "thinking" now posits that a "white genocide" is underway, waged by inferior races, not just in the U.S. but world-wide.

Dealing with this phenomenon will be difficult, as white Americans continue to lose demographic ground to faster-growing minority groups. But at the least we need to unpack the historical fact that, no matter how vigorously whites may have worked for blacks' civil rights, it is the case that, in the beginning, the white race brought the black race to this country---in chains---and thus have the duty to see those chains in all their manifestations---social, political, economic---completely broken.

Removing the Confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, from public places and putting it in a museum is a first step. Republican South Carolina governor Nikki Haley is to be commended for recognizing that a symbol of heritage embraced by many Southerners has been hijacked as an emblem of race hatred. (Of the "heritage, not hate" formulation, however, African-American writer Jelani Cobb notes, "The great sleight of hand is the notion that these things were mutually exclusive.") Notable also is Republican state representative Norman Brannon's candor in supporting the flag's removal. A friend of Pastor Clementa Pinckney, who also served in the legislature as a senator, he stated: "It took my buddy's death to get me to do this. I should feel ashamed of myself." Encouragingly, other Southern states are following suit and select retailers are removing the flag from stock.

But much more reckoning must be done, beyond a flag, and it will take more candor, more courageous leadership, and more effort from We the People. At a time when the public is retreating in disgust from gridlock politics and voter participation is dropping, all citizens must stay engaged. Weary as we are, consider how weary blacks are in insisting their lives matter. (Whites joining in solidarity with blacks at post-Charleston memorials is a stirring sight.) President Obama by himself can't get us to that vaunted place, the "post-racial society"; it is up to us. How to go about it?

One major way is to push back---emphatically---at any racist or white supremacist expression, starting with the forthcoming Fourth of July family picnic. This will be difficult---Americans prize free speech, everyone's speech, as an elemental right---but the Charleston massacre makes a powerful case: Two friends of the shooter now express regret that, hearing the shooter's wild fantasies earlier, they did not stop him. One friend, reported by The New York Times, now feels guilt: "I feel we could have done something and prevented this whole thing."

Another friend says of the shooter, "He was a racist; but I don't judge people." Americans, especially of recent generations, pride themselves on being non-judgmental. But there is a vast difference between tolerance of personal opinion and tolerance of criminal plans. Nine people are dead because judgment was suspended. This friend also said the shooter spoke of wanting "to start a civil war," but the friend didn't take him seriously. We must take white supremacy seriously.

At the national level, leaders in all walks---political, religious, business---need to work forward from this historic moment in Charleston, when guns, race hatred, and white supremacy came together in a fatal but also revealing combination. Leaders must understand the power of their words to ignite or construct, and take care.

In our cultural fare, creative minds must rethink the hip trend of "breaking bad" and pursue the much harder (and more dramatic) task of showing characters pushing back against the bad to break good. Spare us the dramatic investigation into the heart of the Charleston shooter and his ilk. Give us tales of the likes of parishioner Tywanza Sanders, the young man who during the massacre tried to dissuade the shooter and who died trying to protect his aunt (also here). Where does such moral character come from?

Advanced nations, in the tales they tell themselves, don't fetishize violence, dysfunction, or pathology, as we do at present. Instead, a nation truly advanced has a capacity and relish for moral drama: tales of characters examining the rightness and wrongness of things and taking action, as ancient Greece did at its height. Granted, many Greek dramas were tragic, but the real tragedy for America is if we continue to glorify the amoral and mock the moral. American culture offers little to stay the hand of a shooter, to connect him to the humanity of his soon-to-be victims, even as he looks into their faces, and offers too much that negates that shared humanity.

Meanwhile, other advanced countries might temper their criticism of America for its
race hatred, especially if these other advanced countries are mono-ethnic or are guilty of ostracizing members of their own societies as lesser. How one's country maintains its mono-ethnicity might bear investigation, and reform. America is a multi-ethnic melting pot working out, for all the world to see, the problems afflicting all peoples of all nations throughout history.

To point our way, we have the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was Dr. King's genius as a strategist---to hold America accountable in its stated profession to love both the Bible and the Constitution---that got us to this comparatively advanced stage in race relations and that can guide us through this reactionary time. To do unto others as we would have done unto us, and to treat each other as equal before the law: This is the formula for racial comity---and a truly advanced nation.

For other commentary on the Charleston massacre, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her early career was in civil rights.