Last week, Americans were shocked by another horrific act of mass murder. In Charleston, South Carolina, a young white man walked into the historic Emanuel AME Church, sat for an hour with the evening bible study group, then took out a gun and murdered nine innocent African-American congregants. America’s national ailments – racism and gun violence – had once again reared their ugly heads.
The country’s murder rate is the highest in the developed world and it leads in social strife too. The statistics are staggering. Last year, there were 16,000 criminal homicides in the US, 70 per cent of them with guns. This is three times the number of lives lost in the entire Iraq war.
What catches attention are the mass shootings, especially the most dramatic. But, tragically, here too, Americans suffer from memory loss. Within a few days of being in front of their televisions, transfixed by the unfolding horror, the names and faces of the victims and their killers are forgotten. If anything, Americans 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 Americans for long. Instead, they pass out of their 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 an incident in which four or more individuals are killed or wounded) are more commonplace than Americans are willing to admit. In the past two-and -a-half years, more than 1,000 Americans were murdered and more than 4,000 wounded in more than 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 US’s murder rate and mass shooting rates are compared with the rest of the world, it becomes clear that it has a problem – a sickness – and it is killing it, literally.
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 president Barack Obama spoke about America’s national ailments for the seventh time since he entered the White House: “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.”
He went on to 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 Mr 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 Great Depression, some alienated and traumatised white Americans recoiled at the sight of an African American entering the Oval Office.
The reactions were measurable. Within the first year of Mr Obama’s presidency, the number of white hate groups operating in the US increased by over 40 per cent. And there was a dramatic spike in hate crimes against African Americans. Even though they constitute less than 15 per cent of the US population, the number of hate crimes against African Americans equals those committed against all other groups combined. And it was Mr Obama’s election that helped to spawn the Tea Party and the “birther movement” with their subtle and not so subtle appeals to race. The birthers are a group of people who think Mr Obama was not born in the United States.
Despite these continuing reminders that America has an enduring problem with race, it either ignores the problem or denies its corrosive influence. But mostly, it manages just to put it away until the next tragic police shooting or hate crime.
In the aftermath of the Charleston massacre, I had an especially troubling thought. Compare for a moment, the attention and resources that Americans devote to “combating violent extremism” and the lack of resources and attention to the country’s 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 America’s ailments.
By any measure, racist hate groups and gun violence are the gravest threats that America faces today. And yet it appears to be easier for Americans 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, they must be stopped. And of course Americans should protect themselves against any and all potential terrorist threats. But the fact that they can’t muster the intelligence and resolve to stop each other from hating and killing their fellow citizens, even as they remain riveted by the “Muslim bogeyman”, only means that America’s twin diseases will continue to destroy the very soul of the country.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute