Saturday, June 20, 2015

In Charleston, the ultimate inexplicable

The news out of Charleston, S.C., this week can only leave you shaking your head in disbelief. Gun violence has grown so frequent that it fails to shock us the way it should. Deranged gunmen, crazy people, the mentally ill, the disassociated, the misfits of society take up firearms and kill people for no rational or even irrational purpose. They just do it.

But even in these times, the Charleston murders were different. They occurred in a church, a historic church, a landmark in place, architecture, history, religion and community. The shooter had gone to the church to attend a Bible study and prayer session. He participated in the religious gathering for an hour, and then he pulled out a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol and shot nine people with whom he had been studying Scripture and praying — or at least pretending to.

It's a cliche to say that mass murders like this one are inexplicable, but this one is even less explainable. Indications are that the shooter was driven by racial hatred, but what kind of hatred, no matter how feverish, could drive someone to gun down nine people who had gathered in peace and reverence and welcomed him into their circle of believers? How can one interact for an hour with a small, welcoming group and then calmly shoot them down, pumping multiple bullets into each worshiper? This is incomprehensible.

Hatred for people unlike yourself can be a powerful urge, and the shooter apparently hated all African Americans, though he had no apparent incident to cause this hatred. Even bigots can simmer in their misplaced hatred without ever resorting to cold-blooded murder. Even religious disbelievers can insult and disparage the faithful without killing them.

As the shooter goes to trial and likely is sentenced to death, he might explain his actions in some other-worldly, amoral rationalization of monstrous evil, but he can never make sane people understand why. Why would he take the lives of nine good, peaceful, faithful, helpful, kind people?

For 25 years, my family has been annual visitors to Charleston, a beautiful city that deserves its top tourism rankings, a city of beautiful architecture, wonderful restaurants, walkable streets and a warm, soothing charm. We have walked past Emmanuel AME Church and admired its architecture, though we did not know the full history of the church. The people of Charleston we encountered, black and white, were welcoming, helpful and joyous. There was no detectable racial tension, and the outpouring of citywide grief after this shooting testifies to the biracial brotherly love in "The Holy City."

After a crime as heinous as this, how can state legislatures and Congress not crack down on gun violence, the overarming of private citizens and the culture of violence seen in movies, video games and other venues? No other civilized nation in the world will allow this kind of violence to go unrestrained. America is unique in its frontier history and its Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to "bear arms." But no constitutional right is absolute — the right to a free press is tempered by privacy and libel laws; the right to religion does not allow human sacrifice — and the right to bear arms should not include a free ticket to wanton murder and a hands-off attitude toward repeated firearm massacres.

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