Like so many people, I have spent the past two days convulsed with grief and horror at the events in Charleston. Also shame: America’s latest accused mass murderer claimed he had to kill black people because they “rape our women,” and it’s as repugnant to me that anyone would murder a human being in defense of mythic white female purity as it was that another angry young man murdered people in Isla Vista 13 months ago because women wouldn’t put out for him.
Just in case anyone of that persuasion is reading this, here’s a message: No. Women, white or otherwise, are not your possessions and you don’t have the right to kill in their name.
I’ve also been really bothered by all the comments I’ve seen about the guy’s mental state. It’s bullshit, part of an overall racist attitude that says that when black people do something “criminal,” well, it’s just part of their nature. No need to dig much deeper.
But when a white guy kills a bunch of people, well, it’s a symptom that something was amiss that made him act contrary to his nature.
Essentially–and it is a matter of essentialism–it comes down to the fact that white America always know that the person in the black hat (skin) is the villain who deserves our fear and scorn, while the person in the white hat (skin) is the hero who deserves our sympathy, understanding and concern–no matter what the actions of each, or who kills whom.
Likewise, I’ve been bugged when people have called him a monster. It reminds me of an assessment I read of World War I:
War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a particularly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime. –Frederic Manning, 1929.
I think the same applies to mass murder. It is committed “by men, not by beasts, or by gods” (unless you really believe that stuff about Noah and the flood).
To call Lanza or Roof or Rodger “monsters” or even “mentally ill” is to miss the extent to which we make killing those we hate part of our story about ourselves as human beings.
All of these were things I said in conversations on Facebook today. And then so many things fell into focus and clarity, via this amazing article by Tage Rai arguing that people are violent because their moral codes demand it:
Across practices, across cultures, and throughout historical periods, when people support and engage in violence, their primary motivations are moral. By â€˜moralâ€™, I mean that people are violent because they feel they must be; because they feel that their violence is obligatory. They know that they are harming fully human beings. Nonetheless, they believe they should. Violence does not stem from a psychopathic lack of morality. Quite the reverse: it comes from the exercise of perceived moral rights and obligations…. Individuals and cultures certainly vary in the ways they do this and the contexts in which they think violence is an acceptable means of making things right, but the goal is the same. The purpose of violence is to sustain a moral order.
After all, isn’t that the first lesson of the Book of Mormon, that “it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief”?
Rai’s thesis seems inescapable and obvious to me now that I’ve encountered it. If the mechanism didn’t work, we couldn’t persuade our nice young men and women to travel to other lands to kill other nice young men and women.
But it sure makes the Book of Mormon more repulsive and inadequate as a moral compass. I really, really want no part of it.