Editorial: Look to victims' families, not politicians for how to respond to Charleston tragedy

On June 17, 2015, a Bible study metamorphosed into a racially-motivated execution chamber at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people -- including pastor Clementa Pinckney, also a state senator in South Carolina -- were killed, allegedly by 21-year old Dylann Roof. Evidence suggests that the shooting was racially motivated, and authorities are investigating it as a hate crime. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley has already made a public statement urging the death penalty, and political commentators across the country are rushing to frame the tragedy to support their ideological agendas.
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston

In the midst of the media circus, families of the victims -- the people who truly have a right to be angry -- are having a markedly different reaction. Felicia Sanders, whose son was killed by this unwarranted, unprovoked, and cold-blooded act of violence, said to Roof during an arraignment hearing: “May God have mercy on you.” Nadine Collier, a shooting victim’s daughter, said, “I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”

This spirit of forgiveness is commendable, and those who are quick to use this tragedy to promulgate personal political agendas should take notice. At a local level, a prayer vigil held in Lancaster typifies the national response: Rev. Edward Bailey -- a Christian minister -- shockingly said “Somewhere along the line we’re going to say, forgiveness does not work.” Bailey went on to decry the fact that no politicians came to the vigil, commenting that politicians know they will not be held accountable for this tragedy. President Obama struck a similar chord when he vented his frustrations that Congress did not pass sweeping gun reforms proposed in wake of the Sandy Hook shootings of 2012.

It is easy to find blame, but much harder to find compassion. Only compassion will foment the healing that this tragedy necessitates. Distressingly, only the victims’ families, not their leaders, have found that compassion thus far. The anger those leaders seek to stir will serve only to breed more conflict. A board member of the NRA posted on an internet forum that the late Rev. Pinckney was to blame for his and his parishioners’ own deaths because he voted against a law that would have allowed concealed carry of weapons. Liberal media is quick to blame people on the right who have opposed gun control measures, many of which are irrelevant to the tragedy at hand. But in the middle of it all, the families of the victims have found compassion, and that compassion is helping the healing process in a way that the misguided blame and anger stirred by those outside of the situation will only destroy.

All of that said, as families mourn, the rest of the nation is left to consider how this tragedy can happen in a nation like America. And it is only when those discussions go beyond convenient blame and extend to deep understanding that true healing will occur.

Mitt Romney sitting outdoors during daytime, with crowd behind him holding up blue and white "Romney" signs
Former Republican Presidential Candidate
Mitt Romney has urged South Carolina
to remove the flag
Among the symbolic questions thrust into the spotlight is the symbol of the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina state house. Even such Republican figureheads as Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley are now asking for it to be removed, 150 years after the Confederate states ceased to exist. South Carolina has always claimed the flag was only flown as a symbol of independence and shared history with the South. Opponents charge that the only thing the Stars and Bars represents is a gallant attempt to preserve cruel slavery, and an all too successful attempt to preserve inequality afterwards.

And therein is the much larger issue, larger than just petty politics. Roof was racially motivated, and the grim truth is that in the twenty-first century, in the nation of “the free and the brave” race remains a subject of social taboo.

Even comedian Jon Stewart had no jokes on the situation, and instead said, “Once again, we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a gaping racial wound that will not heal that we pretend doesn’t exist.” After noting the “disparity” between the lengths to which America goes to protect itself from foreign terrorism in contrast to the lengths it went to protect those who were killed at church, he discussed racism that pervades South Carolina.

“In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road … that’s racial wallpaper,” he said. “Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them who wanted to start some kind of civil war.”

One needs only to think back a few months it seems to remember the shooting of an unarmed black by a white officer, whether in Missouri, Florida, New York, or elsewhere in the U.S. The victims' families’ forgiveness of Roof is a reassuring sign of what can be accomplished with calm and good intentions, far from the rioting all too vivid in the countries mind from Ferguson and Baltimore. However, the sad facts of the matter are that almost no one can do anything to fix the country’s racial problems, and those who can help have always been told they can not.

From the day the first African-American slaves were brought to the U.S., they were told they were inferior, and over almost 400 years since then, that thought process has become inextricably connected to the psyche of the African-American community. Add to this the economic conditions a large portion of African-Americans have suffered under as a result of slavery and segregation, and a catch-22 arises. Only the African-American community, not well intentioned but misguided whites, can overthrow the ingrown divide within the national conscience, and yet that community has been left in a state that forces desperate people to steal, deal drugs, and commit acts of violence, exactly what racists in this nation, like Dylann Roof as evidenced by chillingly fallacious manifesto, expect.

LNP’s editorial on the situation concluded, “We need to counter misguided beliefs, before they turn into malignant racism. This isn’t easy to do — it’s often easier to ignore the seeds of hate. But we need to find the courage, and stop hatred in its tracks.”

If America is to achieve this desirable end state, it will take people rising above that which is easy -- blame -- and having the moral ambition to find universal compassion. It will take politicians having the courage to check emotional one-liners at the door to dig into complex socioeconomic problems. And it will take the nation looking no further than the victim’s families for how to respond when despicable tragedy interrupts daily lives.

-- Benjamin Pontz, LSNews.org Editor-In-Chief; Justin Burkett, LSNews.org Managing Editor

This is an editorial composed by the listed author(s). The opinions within it do not necessarily reflect the position of LSNews.org, its advisor, its editors, or the Lampeter-Strasburg School District. 

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