The mass murder of parishioners at the historic Emmanuel
African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina law week, by a
young white supremacist intensified the already profound national conversation
about racism and violence that has been building since the killing of unarmed
teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
are more topics in play around Charleston than any single post (even an over
long one like this) can address.
couple of brief points before an extended discussion of one question, already
taken up here on Prawfsblawg
by Rick Hill
(but I come out a bit different).
whether to categorize the act as one of
terrorism or as an example of a mentally deranged or ill person taking an
otherwise unthinkable action.
My answer is: its an act of terrorism that calls for a political response, but we need a
more complicated framework to think about how mental illness and acts rooted in
diseased ideation can parallel acts of terrorism.
So briefly, two strands that in my view should not receive
On the political right, or at least its penumbras on
Twitter, the bogey of “black on black crime” has been raised; as if to say,
white killers are not the real threat facing black communities.
Suffice it to say that this is a total
So called “black on black”
violence, overwhelmingly a problem of young men in super segregated communities
of urban poverty is a terrible problem, but unlike acts of racist violence, it
plays no role in maintaining the legacies of white supremacy; including
segregated neighborhoods, white privilege in access to jobs, educational
opportunities, and even sexual partners.
We need social and economic strategies to
reduce levels of violence among young men in predominantly black communities
but it is by no means an answer to what occurred in Charleston or a reason not
to vigorously pursue one.
On the political left, one major response has been to revive
the ever-flagging gun control debate.
less invidious, I also think this is something of a dodge.
Roof was not using an assault rifle that
could fire scores of bullets in a short time.
He apparently used a 45 caliber handgun and had to reload several times
to carryout all nine killings.
politically realistic gun control proposal for decades has attempted to bar
access to such weapons and one is not going to emerge now.
If President Obama could not lead a national
movement for gun control after the Sandy
school massacre, he sure isn’t going to do it now.
A much bigger issue in my view is the question of how this
crime is being characterized, and particularly the politics behind the
alternatives of viewing it as terrorism versus a deranged act linked to some
sort of serious mental illness.
commentators on Twitter and in columns
, have pointed out that early responses from politicians and
mainstream media figures shied away from identifying the perpetrator Dylan Roof
as a terrorist; raising instead the possibility that mental illness lay behind
this terrible act of violence.
critique is that white people who kill are rarely described as terrorists (or
other categorical terms like “thug”) while people of color, especially African
Americans and Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslims are. This point is indeed well taken.
In media and lay discussions, mental illness
tends to emerge as an explanation for behavior that strikes the speaker as out
of character for the type of person involved.
Since we typically know little about the actual people involved, at
least initially, race is hugely salient in forming this judgment about
When the people unreflectively
assign white people who kill the label “mentally ill,” the assignment testifies
to the speaker’s probably unconscious assumption that white people do not
engage in unprovoked acts of violence (but that African Americans and Muslims,
It would be a mistake however to go further and assume that
any claim of mental illness to explain a person’s acts of violence is dissembling.
There are many homicides where the delusional
beliefs generated by psychotic processes are clearly at work.
James Holmes, who killed 12 people in an
Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012, is a likely example.
Few people can make sense of his crime
without relying at least in part on his well-documented history of mental
As is typical is such cases,
even the prosecution acknowledges the presence of mental illness but asserts
that it fails to reach the extreme threshold established for a legal “insanity”
defense in most states today (what amounts to delusions so profound that they
prevented the perpetrator from understanding that nature or societal proscribed
nature of their conduct).
It is also not
uncommon for people living with psychotic mental processes to be attracted to
extremist political ideologies and conspiracy theories, because their content
often has a striking affinity with the paranoid pattern of psychotic ideation.
Such people may sound like racists or anti-Semites
but their narrative comes from the disease, not their values.
At the same time we should not be surprised
that many of the participants in clearly politically motivated terrorist
attacks, who are drawn to the values behind those politics, also have mental
illnesses (not typically the leaders, but sometimes those persuaded to
undertake the fatal or at least very dangerous acts involved).
Putting aside the legal test of insanity, what should be
most salient to the public conversation about such acts of extreme violence is
whether a particular incident seems to be best explained by political beliefs
and values or by psychotic mental processes that lie behind it (even when both
Are the key ideas behind
the crimes (and there always are key ideas, describing violence as senseless is
almost always incorrect) rooted in the subject’s values, long-term beliefs, and
Or are they more likely to
have been filtered from the ever available stream of hateful ideas through a
mind disordered by disease.
Or to put it
another way, is the best way to prevent
another such incident to expand
mental health screening and treatment services, or does it require a political
process of some sort (from war to conflict resolution to social movements).
In what follows, I would like to offer a preliminary (and
possibly flawed) framework for thinking about acts of violence so awful that
normal human motivations (jealousy, anger, despair) simply do not seem
I start with a typology that
moves from those most clearly influenced by disease, to those most clearly
influenced by values.
No political beliefs or values can explain the Aurora
killer, James Holmes’ actions.
prosecutors view him as person motivated by individual considerations, e.g., to
achieve fame, or in response to being rejected by a girlfriend, (considerations
that rarely result in actual violence where mental illness is not at least a
Whether or not the
jury decides that Holmes’ deserves the death penalty, few if any people can seriously
believe that executing him will prevent the next movie theater massacre.
Meanwhile, expanding mental health screening,
and treatment, certainly for those seeking to purchase assault weapons, would
provide at least some measure of protection.
At the other extreme are the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks
on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
At least one of the convicted plot participants,
Zacharias Moussaui, exhibited behavior throughout his trial (in which he was
most problematically allowed to represent himself) consistent with major mental
illness (although he was found competent to stand trial, that is a fairly low
threshold that excludes most defendants with mental illness).
Yet even if Moussaoui and other plot
participants were in part influenced by their mental illnesses to become
involved, the plot as a whole had an overwhelmingly political logic.
The attack appears to have been motivated by
a strategy of provoking a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian west
and the Muslim world (a strategy that seems at least partially successful in
generating the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of Isis, and a host of other
developments still far from settled).
is no easy political option to resolve terrorism associated with militant
Islamic extremism, but surely politics represents the only realistic path.
Few could believe that even the most generous
expenditures on mental health screening and treatment (presumably on a global
basis) are unlikely to significantly reduce further acts of terrorism.
Of course, I do not mean to imply it will always be easy to
determine whether a particular atrocity is best understood as a reflection of political
values or diseased ideation.
Theodore Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber” for his practice of sending letter
bombs to scientists and engineers involved in research that Kaczynski
associated with the rise of technological civilization.
, published originally
in the New York Times and the Washington Post, in a controversial deal to end
his attacks, presented his belief that industrialization has done irreparable
harm to both nature and humanity and that therefore killing people in an
attempt to halt it was justified.
ideas clearly have a political logic, one that resembles the beliefs of others
involved in what is sometimes labeled “eco-terrorism”.
Still, a close reading of the manifesto
suggests a highly idiosyncratic perspective and narrative, shared in fact by
few others; and acts far more violent than those typically undertaken by even militant
screening (perhaps of overachieving academics), seems more promising than a
political or security strategy to stop the next Unabomber.
This brings us at last to Dylann Storm Roof
, the perpetrator of the Charleston AME massacre.
I would not be surprised at all if forensic
psychiatric examination by both defense and prosecution turns up evidence of
mental illness, but the logic of his act and even the words he articulated have
a clear political sensibility to them; one of unremitting racialized hatred and
fear of African Americans.
We still do
not know precisely where in his life, these ideas and values began for Dylann
I would begin by looking at the
beliefs of his parents (does anyone know whether spelling Dylann with two “n’s”
and giving the middle name “Storm” is any indication that his parents were
involved in Neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups and ideologies?).
Most of us get our ideas about race and racism
from our parents.
Mine (of blessed
memory) were white allies of the civil rights movement and taught us to believe
that the project of completing emancipation was the defining mission of the
modern American nation. The discovery of Dylann Roofs’ online manifesto of race
hatred provides a direct link to the thinking and language of existing white
Kaczynski’s, Roof’s ideas are not idiosyncratic or even marginalized but belong
to a well-developed body of ideas that once dominated Southern politics and
continue to have an important influence nationally on Conservative and
specifically cited the ideas of the Council
of Conservative Citizens
, a well-known white supremacist group with roots
in the violent
segregationists of the 1960s
interest in the Republican Party
What was the strategy?
Roof reportedly told a friend that wanted to start a race
I’m no expert in the logic of
race wars, but this rings true to me as the primary motivation for the
It explains the target, a historic
church long a focus of white
terrorism against African Americans
, and where the victims would draw the
maximum amount of outrage and clarity as to the racial meaning of the
Likewise the date, June 17,
corresponds to date on which a slave rebellion was planned to launch in
Charleston in 1822 and which involved Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was a
founder of Emmanuel AME Church.
I would love to hear from some historians on the origins of
the “race war” trope in American racist ideology.
Its most significant modern proponent until
now is Charles Manson, who taught his followers to prepare for an apocalyptic race war culminating in a black uprising that would overthrow the United States (a fear he
apparently shared with J. Edgar Hoover) and that his Family would then emerge
to lead what was left of civilization. Manson orchestrated the murders of
privileged white victims and then sought to blame the crimes on African
Americans by leaving stolen items in clearly black neighborhoods.
He imagined a law and order crack down on
African Americans would lead to an uprising and ultimately his rise to
Manson called his plan “Helter
after the Beatle’s song which he believed contained a prophesy of
Manson, originally from
Oklahoma, has been racist all his life, recall the swastika he carved on his
forehead during the trial, who assumed necessarily inferior blacks would lead
the country into a disaster and leave his Family in charge.
The whole idea of race war seems to be a distinctively white
be mistaken, but from my knowledge of history, even armed and militant African
American groups have always used violence defensively, or to eliminate
perceived movement traitors, not to provoke a race war that African Americans, very
much a minority demographically and in political influence, would almost
certainly be the ultimate victims of.
So how to prevent another racist massacre? In my view the
political option of an aggressive social movement to finally drive white
supremacy out of its existing strongholds in American society is what is called for.
Don't get me wrong we should spend a lot more
money on mental health as well. Compared to money spent on prisons, seeking the
death penalty, or even hiring police officers, mental health spending is
probably a good way to prevent violence in general
I fear, however, that it would do little to
prevent the kind of racist violence we are dealing with here.
So long as white supremacist narratives are spread
by groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, and sheltered by the
powerful Republican Party, there will be no shortage of marginal characters,
some of them with mental illness, attracted to its ideology and willing to put
their ideas into action.
If we are to prevent this kind of atrocity, a political
strategy is clearly necessary.
here on Prawfs, Rick Hills worries that if forced to choose between their
Southern heritage and common decency, they will choose the former.
I feel we need a strategy that forces that
(We’ve had Fifty years of letting
them slide by on being American and Confederate, its time to choose). It
consists of calling out, boycotting, demonstrating against and generally shaming
the leadership of racist political organizations, and politically destroying
any politician that doesn’t place miles of distance between themselves and this
This requires acts of
public memorialization such as have been undertaken in other countries with a
history of systematic racist violence, like Germany.
This means cleansing the American South of
the residual honorific symbols of the Confederacy: everything must go, flags,
statutes of Confederate generals, or parks or streets carrying their
This also must extend to the segregationist
descendants of the Confederacy.
of segregationist governors should be removed from state houses (they can go to
museums along with the flags and statues).
The Congress of the United States, dominated by segregationists for most
of the 20th
century, should remove any monument to, and posthumously
condemn all of the major figures (most prominently former South Carolina Senator
Just as importantly
it is time to finally make the history of white supremacy and racist violence
against African Americans visible in every American city through museums (a new
Smithsonian museum of African American culture
is about to open in Washington D.C.), public monuments, and street names
(Charleston can have nine new ones).
Fortunately, American society is lot less prone to race wars
than white supremacists believe in their fevered fantasies.
Manson’s murders failed to launch one
(although they did help fuel the punitive turn in American penal policy) and
clearly Dylann Roof has failed in his ambitions as well.
But let us make sure his victims did not die
Their blood calls on all
Americans of conscience to join an unrelenting cultural war against white
supremacy in all of its manifestations.
Cross posted from Prawfsblawg