This week, Americans were shocked by another horrific act of mass murder. In Charleston, South Carolina, a young white man, infected by race hate, walked into the historic Emanuel AME Church, sat for an hour with their evening bible study group, and then took out a gun and murdered nine innocent African American congregants. Our national ailments of racism and gun violence had once again reared their ugly heads, waking us, if only for a moment, from our collective somnolence.
Because we have long ignored the persistence of these virulent diseases, their consequences continue to be felt. Our murder rate is the highest in the developed world, and we lead in social strife, as well. In one index, for example, Canada is in seventh place, while the U.S. is in 94th!
The statistics are staggering. Last year, there were 16,000 criminal homicides in the U.S. Seventy percent of these murders were done were with guns. This is three times the number of lives lost in the entire Iraq war -- 300 each week-- more than 40 every day. Some are "crimes of passion," others are murders occurring during the commission of another crime. While they cry out for attention, they are largely ignored.
What does catch our attention are the mass shootings, especially the most dramatic of them. But, tragically, here, too, we suffer from willed memory loss. Within a few days after we were in front of our televisions, transfixed by these unfolding horrors, the names and faces of the victims and their killers have been forgotten. If anything, we remember the sites of the crimes: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Fort Hood, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown and now Charleston.
Despite the magnitude of these crimes, the horror does not stay with us for long. Instead, they pass out of our consciousness and are recalled only when the next mass killing occurs.
The cities I mentioned were the sites of the big massacres. But the reality is that "mass shootings" (defined as a shooting incident in which four or more individuals are killed or wounded) are more commonplace than we are willing to admit. In the past two and one-half years, over one thousand Americans were murdered and more than 4,000 were wounded in over 750 mass shootings. That's two mass shootings every three days, many of which would have been worse except for the fact that the killers only succeeded in wounding most of their victims.
When the U.S.' murder rate and mass shooting rates are stacked up against the rest of the world, it becomes clear that we not only have a problem -- we have a sickness -- and it is killing us, literally. And yet we go from mass killing to mass killing, numb for a day, and then we move on.
In the immediate aftermath of each mass killing, political leaders pledge action to control weapons -- their distribution and use. But then the powerful gun lobby strikes back; members of Congress cower, and nothing happens.
The day after Charleston, a clearly distressed Barack Obama was in front of a White House podium speaking about our national ailments for the seventh time since he entered the Oval Office. In part, he said
I've had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times... let's be clear: 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.
... it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But..at some point, it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it.
The President went on the note that
The fact that this took place in a black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know that hatred across the races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.
While some naively assumed that Obama's election would help America transcend its racial divide, it appears to have had the opposite effect. Coming as it did in the midst of the greatest economic collapse since the Depression, some alienated and traumatized white Americans recoiled at the sight of an African American entering the Oval Office. The reactions were measurable. Within the first year of Obama's presidency the number of white hate groups operating in the U.S. increased by over 40 percent. And there was a dramatic spike in hate crimes against African Americans. Despite constituting less than 15 percent of the U.S. population, the number of hate crimes against African Americans equal those committed against all other groups combined. And it was also this same set of circumstances that helped to spawn the Tea Party and the "birther movement" -- with their subtle and not so subtle appeals to race.
Despite these continuing reminders that we have an enduring problem with race, here, too, we either ignore the problem or make an effort to deny its corrosive and pervasive influence on our lives. And we most often succeed in putting it away until the next tragic police shooting or hate crime slaps us awake.
In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, I had an especially troubling thought. Compare, for a moment, the attention and resources we devote to "combating violent extremism" (by which we mean Muslims) with the lack of resources and attention we dedicate to what are our defining national diseases. Then imagine what the reaction in Congress would have been if the Charleston shooter had been a Muslim and his targets had been white. This, too, is a symptom of our ailment.
By any measure, racist hate groups and gun violence are the gravest threats we face today. And yet it appears to be easier for us to work up a lather over some Somali kids going off to join al Shabab or some Muslim converts making their way to join an extremist group in Syria. Of course we should we stop them. And of course we should we protect ourselves against any and all potential terrorist threats. But the fact that we can't muster the intelligence and resolve to stop ourselves from hating and killing each other, while we are riveted on the "Muslim bogeyman", only means that our twin diseases will remain with us eating away at the very soul of our nation.
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