Since the news broke, it has become fashionable to play up just how prominent those instincts supposedly are. This is a mistake. What happened in Charleston was a tragedy — no, an abomination — and it understandably served to reopen some of America’s deepest historical fault lines. But it was not part of a contemporary pattern, and for this we should be grateful, not frustrated. Whatever one believes is the modern value of the Confederate battle flag — and for my part I see little at all to admire — the interpretation that the killer appears to have indulged puts him out on a limb. Symbols do indeed matter, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is correct when he concludes that there is no means by which the stars and bars can be washed of their heritage. But I cannot endorse the implication that others have submitted in concert — namely, that we can infer any good answer to the question “why” from the relative ubiquity of a piece of cloth. It is not 1861 in Charleston, and the killer does not speak for the city. Rather, he is a throwback; an anomaly; an isolated and reviled recrudescence. In 2015, the Declaration of Independence has been restored to its rightful place at the heart of American life, and the dissenters have been pushed righteously to the margins. That the shooter saw fit to stage such a painful attack on history and on progress is alarming to us precisely because it is so rare. Happily, the man who would have started a “race war” found no compatriots to help him in his quest. We should avoid granting him an ill-deserved victory by electing to indulge his premise.
Alas, across media new and old, a dangerous — and related — meme has reared its head. “When Muslims attack Jewish synagogues, anti-Semitism is definitely to blame,” runs an indicative line from CNN’s Sally Kohn, “but white guy shoots up black church and nah, not racism?!” This interpretation is an utterly perplexing one. Before the killer had even been captured, the federal Department of Justice had declared in no uncertain terms that it would be investigating the murders as a “hate crime.” And, once the painful details became clear, the whole country joined it in condemnation. At the Daily Beast today, Anna Marie Cox pretends that, in the early hours at least, both “the GOP” and “leading conservatives” denied that the murders had been the product of racism. Predictably, she provides no evidence of denial anywhere in her piece. Likewise, today’s criticisms of Jeb Bush appear to be wholly unfounded. What can be attributed to initial confusion or to reflexive uncertainty — or even to crass omission – should not be attributed to malice. Why, one wonders, would anyone wish to crack our united front with insinuations?