Murder in a church

It shall be written, that in the times of Barack Obama, America in black and white, lived through the best of times and the worst of times

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Every week I find myself compelled to write about a region soaked in blood and tears, driven by fear and hate and bereft of hope. On those few occasions when I write about less tragic subjects, I feel like I have been given a generous dispensation by random events or a different re-alignment of the stars, to maintain my bearings. Can there be anything new to be said about the pain and anguish of Syria and Iraq? The agony and despair of Libya and Yemen? The unmooring of Egypt and Lebanon? Can a conscious Arab in the second half, of the second decade in the twenty first century observing the meltdown of his/her world be anything but a Cassandra in rage?

In recent years, we have seen passionate violence and cold blooded murders in the Middle East, massive killings and the uprooting of whole communities, after they were thoroughly dehumanized and demonized. It is morally indefensible to distinguish between the victims of large massacres or the death of few individuals, or the killing of one person. Still, sometimes the murder of one person, or the killing of a handful of men and women, packs so much violence, so much cruelty and so much symbolism and evil that they stand out as special expressions of man’s depravity.

In cold blood

On Wednesday night this kind of evil, in the form of a 21-year-old white man, Dylann Storm Roof ,visited a storied church in Charleston, South Carolina, and cut down 9 lives in cold, cold blood, taking time to load and reload his gun five times, just because they were black. The killer, who confessed to his crime, in fact did engage his victims and looked them in the eyes before killing them. Roof, entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and attended a Bible study with few congregants, and sat next to the church’s pastor and state senator Clementa Pinckney who was felled by the gunman’s fire. According to the New York Times, Roof said: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.’ Clearly, the killer, a believer in white supremacy and an admirer of the old Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, was waging a race-motivated terror attack, and engaging in a symbolic, violent retaking of America from those blacks who abducted, and abused her. It is uniquely repugnant to kill people while praying, at their most vulnerable, when they believe to be experiencing in a safe sanctuary, the eternal, the all-knowing, and all-compassionate. For someone who has not prayed in decades, I found myself in recent years denouncing loudly, extremist Israelis and Palestinians, Sunnis and Shiites, killing worshipers in churches, synagogues and mosques.

The paradox of Obama’s election

The election of Barack Obama reflected the best and the worst in America. For the United States circa 2008, to elect as president a black man whose full name is Barack Hussein Obama, 143 years after the end of the civil war, and 43 years after the passage of The Civil Rights Act, appeared to indicate that the country was ready to elect a president because of his policies and character regardless of the color of his skin or his background. For many, Obama’s election was truly a transformational milestone, confirming that the country has made significant strides in transcending the cumulative legacies of slavery, racism and segregation. Some even engaged in denial and wishful thinking, claiming that Obama’s is the first post-racial presidency.

It shall be written, that in the times of Barack Obama, America in black and white, lived through the best of times and the worst of times

Hisham Melhem

But, Obama’s election also unleashed a pent up reservoir of racial resentment, and brought in bold relief enduring prejudices that are mostly disguised and masked, in the educational systems, law-enforcement, (with 70 percent of those incarcerated being people of color) and employment. With Obama in the White House, some of these masks fell off, and racial attitudes against the president and what he represents became more brazen. The president’s race was at the core of the new rebel yell, ‘we want to take back our country’ of the Tea Party, just as it was at the core of the rantings of the ‘birthers’, who claimed that the president was not born in the U.S. and those who decried the existence of a ‘Muslim’ or ‘socialist’ president defiling the White House. The murderer in the church is the product of this toxic environment.

Whose terror is more terrifying?

After the 9/11 terror attacks, and what seems to be the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), America’s obsession with the terror of extreme Islamists abroad can be somewhat justified. And while we have seen a disturbing increase in domestic terror attacks carried out by violent Islamist citizens, the fact remain that the greater terrorist threat in the U.S. is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from white right-wing extremists. According to Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer, ‘since 9/11, an average of nine American Muslims per year have been involved in an average of six terrorism-related plots against targets in the United States. Most were disrupted, but the 20 plots that were carried out accounted for 50 fatalities over the past 13 and a half years. In contrast, right-wing extremists averaged 337 attacks per year in the decade after 9/11, causing a total of 254 fatalities, according to a study by Arie Perliger, a professor at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center. Yet, the media coverage of these two types of terror attacks and the political discourse about terrorism in general in the U.S. do not reflect this reality.

A dark part of our history

The murder in Charleston came after a year in which a number of unarmed black men and teenagers were killed by police officers, with some of the culprits suffering no penalties whatsoever. These killings, which led to demonstrations and riots in some American cities, brought to the fore once again the fact that race and racism, subtle and otherwise are still entrenched in American society, and many in the political class, mostly but not exclusively, Republicans and right wing politicians and conservative opinion makers are still unwilling to deal openly and honestly with the scourge of racism,( institutional, or in terms of attitudes) or admit that the ease with which guns can be purchased are the main reasons for these race-based acts of violence.

Since he was elected, President Obama found himself on 11 occasions addressing the American people about violence committed by young men wielding assault rifles or guns killing innocent Americans in schools, movie theatres or places of worship. Some of these murders were racially motivated. A somber and angry Obama, who was physically struggling to restrain himself, said ‘I’ve had to make statements like this too many times.’ The President implicitly rejected the notion that the ugly deed was not the product of a political reality, or that this kind of evil comes out of thin air or unexplained randomness. He exposed the cowardice of many members of congress from both parties, who are unwilling to enact tougher gun laws because they are afraid – or need the largess- of the premier gun lobby, the National Rifle Association, or unwilling to speak out forcefully against racist attitudes and practices.

“We don’t have all the facts,” he said, “but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.’ Addressing, the failure of the country to engage in honest introspection and serious dialogue about what to do with the ubiquity of violence in America, he added, ‘at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.’ Mindful of the interconnectedness of race and politics, and maybe of the numerous commemorations of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the civil war, Obama placed the murder in Charleston in a dark and painful continuum, ‘the fact that this took place in a black church also raises questions about a dark part of our history,’ a reference to the killing of four girls in a church firebombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

I have been withering in my criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and of his wobbly leadership style, but I have always found him rising to the occasion during these tragic moments. The president has been too restraint, too cerebral, and maybe too conciliatory in the face of subtle and not so subtle racism emanating from some of his Republican opponents, who have reserved for him the kind of contempt never shown to previous Democratic presidents in the last fifty years.

Racism and its symbols

Hours after the tragedy, the politicization of the murder was in full swing. Conservative commentators expressed fear that the Democrats will exploit the victims in the upcoming elections and paint the Republicans as indifferent to black pain. Liberal and left leaning commentators pointed out that one of the worst symbol of racism in South Carolina, the Confederate battle flag, the flag waved by racists and segregationists was still fluttering at the peak of its pole – not at half-mast- outside the State House in Columbia, unlike the American and state flags at half-mast above the State House dome. In a powerful article titled Take Down the Confederate Flag—Now, the African- American author Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote ‘the flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it.’ The Confederate flag was the symbol of long decades of discrimination against blacks after the civil war, when emancipation did not mean freedom or economic opportunity for African-Americans who remained mostly outside the political process until the 1960s.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a Republican and a strong Second Amendment supporter (the amendment to the Constitution that gives Americans the right ‘to keep and bear arms’) avoided the issue of stronger gun control laws, and focused on isolating the murderer from his environment, ‘There is one person to blame here,” Haley said, referring to Roof. “A person filled with hate… and we are going to focus on that one person.’ South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican) blamed Dylann Storm Roof, for his actions, saying ‘we're not going to give this a guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere. It's him ... not the flag.’ Like other politicians, Graham confessed incredulity saying that he cannot explain the murder. Others spoke of ‘evil’ as if it is an unfathomable metaphysical force acting on its own outside history.

It shall be written, that in the times of Barack Obama, America in black and white, lived through the best of times and the worst of times.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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