“Fear is the enemy of logic. There is no more debilitating, crushing, self-defeating, sickening thing in the world — to an individual or to a nation.”
It’s not often that the opportunity arises to quote the late Francis Albert Sinatra, at least not apropos of national affairs. But, despite the fact that he’s been dead since 1998, and even though his trenchant comment on human weakness was made 35 years before that, in reference to the dynamics of U.S.-Soviet relations, I’ll be dogged if I can find an epigraph that better captures my sense of the moment in America.
After all, what else but the absence of logic — or, if you prefer, the incursion of fear — allows a person to assert that America does not have a problem with guns? Or to profess the inability to understand that the display of the Confederate battle flag is fraught with racist overtones? Or to acknowledge the undeniable connection of those two things, the fetishizing of firearms to and beyond the point of placing higher value on the presumptive right to bear arms than on the sanctity of human life, and the long and ongoing embrace of the war banner of Old Dixie by those who seek to equate their racial hatred with the nation’s founding ideals and values?
It was the deadly potency of that combination that impelled Dylann Roof to make his purposeful way to Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — one of the oldest black churches in the country — on Wednesday evening, June 17. Once inside the church’s sanctuary, Roof, a 21-year-old white man, sat through 45 minutes of a Bible study the church’s pastor was leading for a small group, and then opened fire with a semiautomatic handgun.
Shouting racial epithets as he fired, Roof reloaded five times. Of the 15 people present at the Bible study, nine were killed — including the pastor, South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney — and one wounded. Roof walked away from the scene and was arrested the next day. His avowed purpose for the mass murder he committed was his desire to provoke a race war.
What would give him an idea like that? What made him say, when one of the people he was about to kill asked him why he was doing such a thing, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
What made him so afraid?
According to those who spout wrong things routinely — officials of the National Rifle Association and men seeking to become the Republican nominee for President in 2016, Fox News and every right-wing bloviator from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine — the latest in a grim and accelerating line of American mass shootings had nothing to do with either the ready availability of guns to any person who has a pulse, or racial hatred. Among this fearful and fearmongering lot, alternative theories abounded.
It was an attack on Christianity. It was drugs. It was because Sen. Pinckney had opposed a concealed-carry bill in the legislature. It was part of Obama’s plan to panic the nation into accepting strict gun control laws, as part of his larger plan to take away all of our freedoms, institute martial law and declare himself President-for-Life before his term expires in a year-and-a-half.
I’m not making any of this up. I wish I was — especially the assessment of former Texas governor and would-be President of the United States Rick Perry, who deemed it “an accident,” albeit one for which President Obama was to blame.
Actually, though, come to think of it, Perry’s self-serving nonsense is true, in its awful way.
Generations from now — assuming our species arrests its exuberant headlong rush toward self-destruction and remains extant — historians will pinpoint the implosion of the American experiment to two dates: September 11, 2001, and November 4, 2008.
The first of those dates, of course, lives in infamy. That’s when terrorists highjacked airplanes and crashed them into New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, DC, killing some 3,000 Americans and plunging our nation into an era of fear and suspicion and uncertainty and misplaced aggression that, for far too many, was only exacerbated and accelerated — as jet fuel accelerates a blaze — on the second date, the night in 2008 when the United States of America elected a black man as its president.
In the circles that spawned Dylann Roof — not just the avowed racists and end-of-the-worlders, but the “respectable” media outlets and organizations and politicians who pander to them for viewers and members and votes and money — the ascendance of Barack Obama was a perversion of the American Dream itself, and a sure sign of the coming Apocalypse. He was a socialist, a fascist, a secret Muslim, an alien passing as American, a diabolical genius with designs on world domination, a dithering fool who has no more business in the White House than a field hand had at a cotillion.
In actuality, of course, Obama was none of these things. What he was, was black.
That’s what these people were afraid of. And, due in no small part to their willingness and ability to broadcast their fears to vast audiences of Americans, and to have the more susceptible among them not only share their fears but hone them into personal grievance, deploy them in the most openly and provocatively and tragically hateful of ways, and encourage others that doing the same was the only way to save their skin, that’s what Dylann Roof was afraid of.
So what’s next for America? As I’ve just noted, I don’t think the outlook is good. I think we’ve gone crazy, and I think there are people who, for all their blather about loving America, think that’s just fine, that it’s every man for himself and that he with the most money and the most guns wins. And in all of that, they fail to see that, by that standard, the winners will be few and they won’t be among them.
In last week’s cover story, I interviewed the activist attorney Bryan Stevenson, who is one of the nation’s deepest thinkers on matters of race and justice. In essence, Stevenson said that America is not going to get better until we face up to our problems, most especially that of race. Instead, we harbor those problems, nurture them, keep them locked inside our National soul like the knowledge of an unsolved murder.
As a result, we live in fear — of our fellow Americans, of people and things foreign to us, of our very selves. Which puts me in mind of another wise man’s words on that subject.
“Fear keeps people from being their best,” Fred Shuttlesworth once told me. “It sows bitterness and distrust.”
What is the best thing that America can do in the memory of those who died at Emanuel AME Church? We can, at last, stop being afraid.