By now the story has reverberated around the world, that on the evening of June 17 a 21-year-old white man, Dylann Storm Roof, entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (the oldest black church in the South) in Charleston, South Carolina, and, about an hour later, shot and killed nine of the 12 worshipers gathered there for an evening Bible study. Two pieces of information emerged with early reports on the killings, the first was a survivor’s recollection of the killer saying he had to do it because blacks rape white women and are about to take over the country, and the second were photos of the young man with the Rhodesian and apartheid South African flags pinned on his clothing.

One set of public reactions insisted on the obscurity of the killer’s motives, even in the face of the two pieces of information just mentioned, which left many of our politicians at a loss as to what could have driven a young man, whose own uncle described him as an otherwise soft-spoken lad, to commit such an unspeakable crime. The only thing pundits at Fox News could think of was that the young man must have had something against religion in general, while others were quick to revive a talking point we have heard since the December 2012 shooting at a Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school that left 20 pupils and six educators dead — if only there was one good person with a gun inside that church, the bloodshed could have been minimised, if not altogether prevented. (It takes one good person with a gun to stop one bad person with a gun, goes the mantra.)

Of course, it did not help any that the pastor of the church, who was among those killed and who sits in the State Senate in South Carolina, was reported to have opposed a bill that would allow people to carry guns inside houses of worship. Not to be outdone by the race denialists and gun enthusiasts, another set of public reactions insisted on the clarity of the killer’s motives, citing the same pieces of information mentioned earlier as evidence of a racially motivated hate crime and one in many tragic commentaries on a gun culture gone out of control.

Thus, with events in Charleston still fresh in our minds, we are already set on a well-beaten path of polarised debate on race and gun control. A path, as important as it is each time we take it, that Jon Stewart (of Comedy Central) has presciently predicted will lead to again a very familiar destination — NOWHERE. We like this endpoint (nowhere) in this country and it seems that every new tragedy, however big or small, only triggers a circuitous path back to it (nowhere).

Just like what cynics say of rituals, our journey down the path of race relations and gun control debate always guarantees its own repetition by anticipating its own failure. My pessimism is not clean, however, for I also admire and cheer on the optimists who have already pointed out that perhaps this one tragedy might just turn out to be the opportunity we have been waiting for to finally break the cycle.

What piqued my own interest, and what I think might add a different dimension to two-sided debates, was the discovery of Roof’s website manifesto. Scattered throughout the commonplace white supremacist rant about blacks, Jews, Latinos and Asians, the manifesto raises some important questions about the increasingly difficult standing of poor young white men in relation to both public politics and the so-called culture wars. But that will require a different posting. Soon to follow.



Zolani Ngwane

Zolani Ngwane is a teacher at a small Quaker school in Philadelphia, US.

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