It is tempting just to look away from the news about the Charleston shooting. Such incidents now seem to function in our culture as a kind of hyper-reality television. As new details emerge, we bat them around in conversation with family, friends, and colleagues. We strike the attitudes of baffled outrage that decency seems to require. After a few days or weeks the outrage becomes stale, the story slips from the headlines, and we all move on—until the next horrible shooting a few months later. In the meantime, nothing changes. Our gun laws and our mental-health system remain the same.
In this case, there is also the issue of racism, about which much of the country seems to be in denial. Jon Stewart called it an open wound on last night’s Daily Show, which became, for one episode, a comedy-free program. This is not an original metaphor, but it's a good one. Open wounds become infected if you ignore them, and that’s what seems to be happening with racism during the second term of our first black president. We can’t expect our politicians to make the racism go away—it’s too deep and complex a problem to be solved by policy alone—but they must do the little they can. At the very least, they must acknowledge that the problem persists.
Our gun laws, which indirectly cause so many real wounds, are not exactly an open wound. They are an embarrassing anachronism preserved by a chronic irrationality. We could fix them tomorrow if we wanted to. Not enough of us do because of ideology—and, in particular, because of an ahistorical idolatry of the Second Amendment. Other advanced countries have to deal with mental illness and racism, but they don’t have to persuade themselves that periodic mass shootings are just part of life, like car accidents. As President Obama sugested, the difference is our gun laws.
How crazy was the shooter? We don’t know yet. If his belief that he could start another civil war by murdering nine people in a black church is what proves he’s crazy, how much crazier is he than all the people who talk about needing their guns so they can overthrow a tyrannical federal government? Or, if it’s his monstrous racism that’s supposed to prove he’s crazy, then were the lynchings that used to take place in South Carolina just an outbreak of mental illness? “Mentally ill” is the term we now use to explain many, if not most, acts of individual evil. For collective wickedness, we have other words. What is our word for whatever keeps the Confederate flag flying above South Carolina’s capitol building two days after the massacre in Charleston?