Last night a young white man parked his car and walked into an historic black church in Charleston, SC, and sat down during a bible study. He did not need to worry that he would be asked to leave or made to feel unwelcome. Indeed he could expect that he would be embraced as a visitor to this sanctuary. He stayed a while. And then, while in the comfort and security of their spiritual hospitality, he gunned nine men and women down, reportedly while spouting a racial justification for his actions.
I have heard and read a lot of speculation today: “Dylann Roof is disturbed.” “Dylann Roof is deranged.” “Dylann Roof is evil.”
It may not seem important to some, but as a lawyer who frequently asks judges and prosecutors to consider the mental health dimensions of criminal conduct, I feel there is something distressingly lax about these armchair pronouncements. Because I practice criminal defense, I generally avoid making public comments about criminal cases that arise in my hometown.
But something is so different about this. Something that threatens to obscure one pressing issue in our community and in our country by conflating it with another. Something that as a white, nearly lifelong resident of Charleston, I feel obligated to say in defiance of my usual self-censorship.
While they may and often do dwell together, hatred and mental illness are not the same. Hatred is not a mood disorder. Hatred is not a condition for which we are biologically marked. Hatred cannot be pharmaceutically mediated. Whether a mental health condition played a role in what happened here last night will, undoubtedly, be explored by experts qualified to diagnose and explore the contours of such illness. And if Dyllan Roof suffered from a treatable mental illness that played a role in what happened here in Charleston last night, we should rightly demand again and again and again until those demands are met for improvements in our country’s mental health infrastructure and creative solutions to keep guns out of the hands of people too ill to responsibly own them.
But we must look deeper.
We are all experts in the simple emotional calculus needed to spot hatred in our midst. We need no specialized training to observe in the equation where one white man stands in a position of armed power to assassinate nine black men and women in a spiritual sanctuary that the moral operation is hatred.
Hatred is inert violence. Hatred is taught and learned. Hatred can be communicated in silent gestures and symbols, by signs over the water fountain, by flags waving in the wind, by quiet dismissal and by frantic shrieking. Hatred can run tiny rivulets or rushing waters through the bedrock of a person’s character. And we are all susceptible to its intrusions.
For so many years our country tolerated, even embraced, hatred in the form of racial bigotry. We have turned some of the sharpest of those corners. But we do ourselves and our children a disservice if we pretend that we have explored all the dangerous outlets in which hatred continues to live and be bred. And we do ourselves and our children a disservice if we refuse to acknowledge that the long shadows of those sharpest corners continue to shut out much of the light for the communities who have been relegated to those shadows over decades and centuries.
It cannot be enough that we decry the violence of one man’s gun. We must root hatred out in ourselves, we must inoculate our children, and we must be vigilant in protecting our neighbors as we would ourselves or our children.