James Alan Fox
June 18, 2015
Last night's deadly massacre at a
historic black church in Charleston, S.C., has sent shockwaves far and wide with
citizens of all races asking incredulously: If one can't be safe in a house of
worship, then where? Is there no place in America that is sacred?
Although the specific location has made this, the latest in a string of high profile shooting sprees, especially stinging, the setting most likely has more to do with race than religion. Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old white man who allegedly killed nine African-Americans and left one person unharmed to serve as witness, waited patiently to deliver his violent message. According to the survivor, the gunman remarked that black Americans were "taking over our country."
As with many others who commit massacres, it is not a matter of psychotic thinking and a sudden eruption of rage at victims chosen randomly, but a deliberate, methodical design to exact revenge on a class of people whom the shooter sees as responsible for his own disappointments. By all appearances so far, this was a deliberate, retaliatory act at least in part born out of the recent climate of diminished good will in race relations around the country.
While authorities have opened a hate crime investigation, the massacre can also be interpreted as an act of terrorism by the classic definition of the term. Crimes like these are not so much intended to punish the particular victims, but to send a strong message to "their kind" generally.
From the point of view of the perpetrator, such hate crimes are defensive. That is, he feels that his advantaged position in society has been eroded by the members of another group and must be protected. His warped objective, therefore, is to rid the world of evil by eliminating the enemy — in this case, black Americans.
It is likely that the location of the Charleston massacre was selected not to be blasphemous, but in the knowledge that the black victims would be easy targets. They'd be unarmed, defenseless, with little room to escape.
This is hardly the first church in America stained by large-scale bloodshed. In 2012, six were killed at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc., and seven were murdered during a teen prayer rally at a Baptist Church in Fort. Worth, Texas.
In 2008, two people were killed and several others wounded by a 58-year-old man who was gunning for liberals and Democrats at a political rally at a church in Knoxville, Tenn. Despite the location, the crime had nothing to do with religion.
Churches are sometimes selected by dispirited gunmen simply as places where certain kinds of people are known to congregate and would be convenient proxies for retribution. This is also why schools are sometimes chosen as mass murder sites, as in the 1989 Stockton shooting of Southeast-Asian elementary school children and theMontreal massacre of women studying engineering at the hands of a feminist-hating malcontent. And, of course, the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting were slaughtered only because of their association with the place where the gunman had been bullied many years earlier.
In an often repeated urban legend, bank robber Willie Sutton, when asked why he targeted banks, remarked that that is where the money is. In a similar way, mass murderers who are looking for a specific kind of people to harm target churches and schools to perpetrate their hateful acts of terror.
James Alan Fox, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, and Jack Levinare professors at Northeastern University and co-authors of Extreme killing: Understanding serial and mass murder.