Last week the flags were at half-mast again. I am beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t just leave them down all the time.
With the half-mast flags come the attempts at explanation. But the attempts usually fail: “Senseless,” cry the papers. “Mindless,” declare the TV anchors. Investigators digging for “clues” to the “motives” assure us that we may never truly know why such things happen. Regarding the latest incident, the Seattle Times opined: “The shooter in Oak Creek, Wis., took six lives and wounded three others in a mindless display of firepower fueled by a motive he surely cannot articulate.”
Oh? It seems to me that his message was “Kill the brown people.” Wouldn’t you say he delivered that message well?
And why is it a “mindless” message? A man shoots up a theater because he thinks he’s a movie villain: that’s mindless. A white man shoots brown people to drive the brown people out? Do the names Sand Creek and Wounded Knee ring any bells? No? How about “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”? That was unofficial US Government policy for a long time. Black people are and always have been systematically enslaved in this country—Tara becomes Parchman Farm becomes Pelican Bay—but does anyone remember Tulsa? Or the New York City Draft Riots? No? How about Emmet Till? Medgar Evars? Oh, and that King fellow. When the A-bomb leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many cheered because it was no less than the Yellow Peril deserved, just a part of the work that was begun in the riot in LA back in 1871 and was to be continued at My Lai.
Was the Oak Creek shooter acting senselessly? Or has he been taking notes?
Even if we ignore the racial element and blithely pretend the aforementioned things never happened (a pretense which also seems to be unofficial US Government policy) it’s impossible to deny that we Americans use violence to solve our problems all the time. When lone heroes take up arms in the movies, it’s celebrated, and the films make mints. When the US goes to war, it’s to fanfare, flag-waving, and acclaim. And all of us use violence, if at some remove, if we ever call the police—for the police are armed, and will kill if they feel they must.
Does the violence seem so senseless now?
The shooter may not have known the difference between Sikhs and Muslims. If he had, or if someone had told him, he might not have cared. This is white supremacy, and that’s as American as apple pie. Traditional, in fact. It may be as strong as ever.
Whenever we white people think, “Why don’t they act a little more like us?” we’re white supremacists. Whenever we whites wish that various minorities would just settle down and leave off talking about injustice, we’re supremacists. Every time we whites say, out loud or within, that they should be more like us or reject the idea that we should be more like them, we’re supremacists. Whenever we whites think, “Gosh, they’re so loud,” we’re supremacists.
That may be why so many of us describe such killings as “senseless,” “mindless,” “inexplicable.” If we ever truly looked at the reasons the murderers give, we might have to admit that we are not so different from them. That we are the heirs to a long tradition of doing exactly what they are still doing—and that we are, whether one step back or five, still doing it ourselves.
Whenever brown people kill white people, it is “terrorism,” and part of a conspiracy; whenever white people conspire to kill brown people, it’s “senseless” violence on the part of a “lone gunman.” The Oak Creek shooting is being treated as a domestic terrorism case by law enforcement, but it’s practically the first time I’ve heard of such a thing; when white supremacists planned to bomb a Martin Luther King Day parade (how obvious can you get?) I never heard it was being called terrorism. Many people forget—or prefer to—that the worst act of terror in the US prior to 2001 was carried out by a white Army veteran. Sometimes when this point is brought up, people even try to connect McVeigh to al Qaeda! There’s a mental block: “terror” is what brown people do to us. Whatever anyone (white or brown) might do to brown people is just “senseless”—or, of course, “national security.”
There’s a way to stop this. It involves listening to what the supremacists say—not to agree with them, not to learn from them, but to understand what brought them to the point of such murderous rage, and then figure out how to keep anyone else from getting to that point… and how to keep ourselves from furthering that rage. And we can begin this process by ending something: we can’t call such violence “senseless” any more. If we look at our history, our present-day prejudice, and our tendency to use violence, Oak Creek and all the others like it make a lot of sense.
We just don’t want to admit it.