It has very quickly become all about the symbols. The people Dylann Roof killed were as symbolic to him as the Confederate Flag on his car bumper. He’d never met them before, he didn’t care who they were. The fact that he is reported to have stated “You rape our women” before killing six women only underscores the separation between fact and imagery that fueled his rage. The fact that white men through history have raped black women in numbers greater than all the black rapists in the world could ever hope to catch up with was equally indifferent to him. The fact that he did not belong to any organized group promoting White Supremacy, while giving these groups, and the State of South Carolina, room to distance themselves from his actions, made no difference to his embrace of their ideas. Fortunately, it has not been enough to get them off the hook. Cries to take down the Confederate Flag over the South Carolina State Capital have been as loud as those for increased gun control. We may have better luck with the flag. There’s only one flag. There are millions of guns. And, like it or not, millions of racists. My Canadian wife turned to me from watching the non-stop coverage and asked “What is it with you Americans?”. I knew what she meant. In spite of how much has changed since Selma, in spite of having black news anchors on television and a black president in the White House, we still seem to have racism in our drinking water.
So what kind of country are we? A country of gun-toting white people who see minorities - racial, religious or sexual - as threats to be fought against, or are we a diverse country of people who treat each other with respect and compassion regardless of color, creed or orientation. The obvious answer, unfortunately, is yes to both. And, as ever, it’s all about the symbols.
A theme I came back to again and again in “The Holy Bluff” is that good symbolism is responsible for most of the progress, charity, peace and beauty the human race has been capable of while bad symbolism is responsible for most of the harm we do to each other, the world and ourselves. Turn on your TV. One picture has thousands of people of all colors standing together in solidarity outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church to pay respect to the victims. For the white participants, the symbolic message is clear: “I’m here to show that this killer doesn’t speak for me. All white people are not like him”. The message from the black mourners who welcomed their participation is equally clear: “We believe you”. This is good symbolism, a symbol of that diverse country we were talking about a minute ago. But then the next picture you see is that of the Confederate flag flying over the state capital, with a newsman intoning a statement that “the leading Republican candidates are treading delicately so as not to risk offending the conservative white voters who venerate the most recognizable emblem of the Confederacy”. That’s a different kind of symbolism.
To the killer, the Confederate Flag was a symbol of White Supremacy, a standard to be carried into battle against the perceived threat of a “black takeover” of America. To a great many people, overwhelmingly white, it’s a symbol of their refusal to trust the United States Government, along with a murky sense of the pre-War South as some kind of elegant White Utopia, usurped by Northerners with no respect for the finer things. There’s a fine line between the two, with racism on both sides of it. What gives the symbol its power, 150 years after Lee’s surrender, is the same power any symbol has – the ability, in a more direct, soul-gripping way than any written statement, law or creed, to enable a person to say “this is who I am”.
The search for human meaning is all about identity. The flag I carry tells you who I am. More importantly, it tells me. The killer in Charleston found in the rhetoric available to him on White Supremacist websites the means to define himself, to give his life meaning. He was in a sense a microcosm of the thousands of young Southern boys who could never have afforded to own a slave, but cheerfully went off to into battle to protect somebody else’s property rights. The battle itself gave them meaning, much as Dylann Roof’s imagined battle gave him his.
America is badly need of unifying symbolism, some central image that tells us who we are. The Stars and Stripes just aren’t enough any more. In the absence of that, Americans in search of meaning will find other symbol. Hopefully it will be something that evokes a diverse and welcoming crowd praying and singing together in memory of slain innocents, not the gun that killed them.