Believers, Rampages and the Church in Charleston


It happened in a church this time, a "House of God." It didn't happen in a school, or a workplace like the unbridled carnage of rampages which occur with startling frequency, but a church. Racial hatred appears to be the clear motive for Dylann Roof's targeting of the Charleston, South Carolina African American community, but why did he commit a horrific murderous rampage inside a church?

We may someday discover Roof's awful and senseless motives, as he is still alive. A rampager who lives to speak is somewhat unusual. Many rampagers commit suicide immediately after committing the murders or are shot on-site by police--sometimes referred to as "suicide by cop." (Jared Loughner in Tucson, Arizona and James Holmes in Aurora, Colorado are two recent exceptions.) If Roof intended to commit suicide, as a surviving witness reported, he never completed the drive home and was arrested alive in his car.

Many rampages are, in reality, suicides; rampagers view their lives as hopeless and not worth living. The rampage, though, is much more than a suicide as many people die and many suffer life-long debilitating injuries. Lives, families and communities are shattered in a rampage. One result sought by some rampagers is to give perceived meaning to what they view as their hopeless, meaningless life. They likely seek notoriety and fame, translated to infamy. Some, like Harris and Klebold at Columbine (Colorado) are determined to out-do rampagers who precede them; the two teens obsessed with killing more than McVeigh killed in Oklahoma City.

The Charleston massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church wasn't the first church rampage (the 2012 massacre at the Milwaukee Sikh Temple comes to mind) but it was among the most deadly. So why a church? I have no evidence to support this and it's just one theory, but it's a theory worth exploring. The men who typically go on murder spree (it's always men and almost always young men), and usually with guns, shoot at random target they do not know. They don't kill everybody they see, they choose who lives and dies. Perhaps the act is perceived by the shooter as an exhibition of raw power, and a lot like the awesome power people ascribe to God.

In fact, in two well known examples, as rampage killers went about their spree they asked potential victims if they believed in God. During the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, students hid under desks in the library and some prayed. Harris and Klebold, peering under the desks as they selected victims, asked students if they believed in God. Harris and Klebold killed a total of thirteen students and teachers.

A few years later the question was asked again. In 2005 at Red Lake High School (Minnesota) Jeffrey Weise, walked through a study hall classroom shooting at students. When the teacher said "God save us," Weiss killed her. Before he continued his rampage he next asked the students, "Do You Believe In God?" One of the boys answered "No." Weiss then killed five of the students, killing a total of nine in the end. Weiss likely studied and imitated Harris and Klebold's Columbine reign of terror.

Roof, then, might have selected religious people, in a church, because he could demonstrate to everyone watching that at he, not God, controlled destiny; he possessed the ultimate power over life and death. In a warped thought process, what better place to imitate or even mock God's power than a church? Roof didn't have to ask this group the rampager's question, "Do you believe in God." He knew the answer; he sat and studied bible along side them. Roof knew they believed in God.

The irony is that since Roof lived, he was arrested and extradited back to South Carolina, a state that has capital punishment. Just as Holmes learned this week, it will be a jury of citizens who will decide whether he lives or dies, and American juries have lost patience with the insanity defense. The jury he faces will likely be a lot less merciful than the godly families whose mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers were the victims of a shocking display, not of power, but of profound cowardice.