Symbolism as substitute for substance after a tragedy

The American movie theater in Charleston, South Carolina. Brian Snyder | Reuters

The American movie theater in Charleston, South Carolina. Brian Snyder | Reuters

If there is one thing you can count on after a senseless, horrific tragedy, it is the public’s maddening reaction to it.

A week ago, a mass shooting took place in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof, an intensely disturbed 21-year-old with racial hatred held deeply inside of him, opened fire inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the country’s oldest black churches, killing nine people.

The more we learn about Roof, the more terrible the crime becomes. Roof was a segregationist and white supremacist who celebrated symbols of racial animus. What’s worse, he reportedly told friends of his plan to murder people, but no one took his comments seriously.

It is difficult for many of us to understand the level of hate necessary to inspire a person to systematically gun down nine people. It is, by its very nature, an irrational act, forcing people reacting to it to attempt to assign some kind of sense to a senseless act of violence.

Unfortunately, there is very little of that sense to be found, which is why the public’s constant groping for it always becomes unproductive.

In the tragic aftermath, particularly a situation such as this where race is involved, emotions begin to dominate reaction, and a base immaturity begins to emerge. Large segments of our society simply refuse to wait and think, choosing instead to rush to talk and act.

Political leaders are always the worst offenders. The bodies of the innocent victims had barely turned cold before politicians started to sniff an opportunity, and began hunting for cameras to stand in front of.

Without any hint of shame, the president used a national tragedy to make a vague point about gun control. Said Obama, “We don’t have all the facts, 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.”

In an equally repulsive act of political showmanship, Mike Huckabee, responding to the president’s grandstanding, took the opportunity to suggest that the Charleston massacre could have been prevented, if only the people in the church were armed with concealed weapons.

Both statements are entirely political and seek to use death and violence to advance personal ambitions and policy goals. Devoid from either is any kind of rational, realistic discussion of what just happened.

Similarly irrational is the suddenly renewed push to attack the confederate flag from the south.

Do not misunderstand me. Not only do I support the removal of the flag from the South Carolina capitol, but I have long advocated its removal. I have always considered it an inappropriate symbol, if for no other reason than it — for whatever else it may mean to many different people — represents insurrection and rebellion against the United States.

Some 150 years after the Civil War ended, we still have states proudly flying a flag of treason.  Worse, it represents a treason that was committed in an effort to preserve the enslavement of human beings. Anything that represents that has no place flying over a member state of that same United States.

My ultimate problem with the recent obsession with the confederate flag is that it represents yet another disappointing distraction, born of people’s desire to focus on a symbolic change that is tangible, rather than any kind of real complex, abstract examination and discussion about what Roof’s racial hatred and mass murder really mean, and where it really came from.

No one with any sense believes that the confederate flag flying over South Carolina’s Capitol building incited this sick young man to pursue white supremacy, or kill people.  Rather, it — along with other symbols he latched on to — were outlets for hatred that already existed and grew in his heart.

And we should condemn those outlets, and yes, they should certainly be taken down from anything representative of these United States. But in our haste to feel like we have “done something,” there are calls for the banning of these symbols, and any remembrance of southern generals or leaders, given the stain of what they represent.

That won’t bring those in Charleston back. None of it would have prevented Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage.

I don’t know what turned Roof from the innocent he was into the murderer he became, and neither do you. But the answer is likely rooted in a toxic mix of social, economic, familial, political and cultural problems.

Those are the problems we must address, and those are the very problems we aren’t focusing on, because it feels better to complain about the stars and bars than become deeply introspective about our society.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.