Given all that has been said and written about the Charleston terror attack, we are fortunate to have Obama as president. Nothing more effectively refutes the right-wing meme that Obama is some kind of radical than the president’s own words. Less than 48 hours after Dylann Roof entered a Bible study group at an historic black church, pulled out his Glock and murdered nine people, Obama gave an hour-long podcast interview to Marc Maron. One might wish the president was somewhat different than he is, but he was—at least in comparison to much of his liberal base—calm and rational. It was a welcome intervention.
Obama probably knew by then that Roof had at least some ideological connections with neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups, but this wasn’t the point he emphasized. He focused on the fact that a 21-year-old who was probably racist, or deranged, or angry and completely disconnected from the world could easily get his hands on a powerful gun. Whether Dylann Roof’s father gave him the gun as has been reported or he purchased it himself, it is something singular about America that a low-functioning angry person can acquire high-performance weaponry so easily.
Obama also addressed general racial issues, and here his intervention was characteristically logical, nontendentious, and lacking in hostility to whites. (Unlike his right-wing detractors, Obama never forgets that he is half-white.) The contrast with the anti-white hysteria that seems to have taken over Salon, for example, was noteworthy. Among the points the president made: the police have a very difficult job; they are sent in to pacify communities that have been wounded by decades of discrimination (true); essentially to keep those communities from bothering the rest of us (also true). Asked by Maron for a policy response, beyond improved police methods, he returned to early childhood education, which in some spots—in some school districts, under some principals—has been extraordinarily successful in raising the school readiness of poor black Americans.
I suspect Obama knows that the evidence for this is hopeful but far from conclusive, and the costs would be substantial. The United States should certainly try more of this, without expecting miraculous results. Meanwhile, another wing of the civil rights movement is trying to water down or eliminate the requirements for becoming a public school teacher, claiming that tests that measure a would be teacher’s academic competence are inherently racist. So one can imagine that if liberals had their way, there might be more early intervention preschool education and less effective, more academically incompetent teachers in middle and high school. The overall effect is anyone’s guess.
In a sense, the Charleston attack was of a piece with other instances of racially or ethnically motivated lone-wolf terrorism: Anders Breivik, Nidal Hasan, and, 21 years back, Baruch Goldstein come readily to mind, though there are surely others. Hasan and Goldstein were more or less established adult professionals, Hasan, who murdered 13 American soldiers in a mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, was a U.S. army major and a psychiatrist; Goldstein a middle-aged, American-born doctor, who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslims at prayer in Hebron in the name of an ethnically pure Greater Israel. In this context, Goldstein stands out somewhat, for he is considered a hero by some Israeli settlers, who have built shrines and written songs to glorify him. Anders Breivik, a 34-year-old Norwegian loner, killed 69 students at a Labor Party youth camp in Norway in 2011, hoping to become a martyr in a campaign against multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.
It is a useful exercise to consider the political issues surrounding these four acts of lone-wolf terror; the first conclusion is that Dylann Roof is far and away the most genuinely politically isolated of the four. The terror rampages of both Goldstein and Hasan were connected to geopolitical struggles that have already killed many. There are more than a few Israelis, like Baruch Goldstein, who want all Palestinians expelled from Palestine, or at least rendered unable to resist Israel’s continued taking of their land. Goldstein’s sentiments are certainly represented in the current Israeli government, even if official Israel doesn’t act as blatantly.
Hasan was an American-born Muslim (of Palestinian origin) who came gradually to sympathize with the Muslim victims of American military intervention, and struck out against the Army, which he himself was a part of. He was socially isolated and a loner, but his sentiments are far from unusual in the Muslim world. If there is a silver lining, it is that the United States is not compelled to be fighting Muslims all over the world; that is a foreign policy choice, which could and hopefully will be changed or reversed.
Breivik is a psychotic, and you won’t find a single open supporter of him in Europe. But there are certainly those who think that the tensions between Muslim immigrants and their host societies will come inevitably to a violent head; a character in Michel Houellebecq’s best-selling French novel Soumission is connected to paramilitary “identitarian” groups which hope that war starts sooner rather than later; the character as presented is neither crazy nor particularly unsympathetic. As Nidal Hasan swam in a larger sea of Muslim sentiment, paler and more “normal” versions of Breivik’s ideology are increasingly reflected in the broader European party system. My sense is that a political majority in Europe now believes Europe must reduce its immigration, even if only the parties of the “far” right vocalize this.
Compared to the broad streams of right-wing Zionism, militant anti-American Islamism, and European reaction to mass Muslim immigration, the neo-Confederate race hatred that inspired Dylann Roof is a marginal and isolated sentiment. This goes beyond the fact that virtually no one thinks that walking into a church and killing people who have welcomed you is anything but a vile and odious act. Race-hatred ideology is not widespread in the United States: the overwhelming majority of American whites and blacks subscribe to roughly similar visions of racial progress, including equal opportunity and a considerable degree of social integration. The commonplace television commercial image of blacks and whites enjoying life and consuming products together is more or less what the vast majority of Americans want. American blacks identify with America, no place else.
The issues of crime and unequal school outcomes are likely to remain difficult, and we could surely do better than we have done. But the American race problem is a long-term and chronic one, not an urgent crisis. Unlike the 1960s, few people believe the existing racial disparities threaten American society as a whole, and this consensus is probably correct. At this stage, it would take little more than moderately effective gun control to ensure that there are no more Dylann Roofs; if there is anything to be learned from the horrible Charleston tragedy, it is probably that.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.