Don’t get me wrong. I have been opposed to the flying of the Confederate flag for decades. I immediately become disgusted, make that physically revulsed, when I see the blue X with white stars across a field of red—the central motif of the flag of the American slave republic—branding belt buckles, tee-shirts, banners, jackets, bandstands, caps or state flags.
Despite protestations to the contrary through the years, the Confederate flag is an inherently racist symbol. I can’t possibly imagine anyone displaying Confederate iconography except for racists, those who want to get the votes of racists or those who want to do business with racists using racism as a common affinity between seller and buyer.
There is no doubt that flying the Confederate flag on government or public property is and has always been an act of treason, since the establishment of the Confederacy was an act of treason. And there is no doubt that the United States is a better place when the flag of the American slave state is marginalized: when candidates don’t wrap themselves with it pretending it’s a symbol of states’ rights; when it is not readily available for purchase in large national chains; when the consensus opinion is that people who display the Confederate flag are as anti-social as those who revel in Nazi iconography. While I think brandishing the Confederate flag is protected speech under the First Amendment, I am glad to see that we as a nation are finally saying that it is an anti-social and explicitly racist act.
But the swiftly spreading collective movement to end the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina and elsewhere in the country is a bit disconcerting, because it’s another example of the United States addressing the wrong problem in a crisis. Just as we attached Iraq instead of going after Al Qaida in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, so are we trying to curtail flying of the Confederate flag as a means to stop single-shooter mass murders. It’s an example of an entire society exhibiting what psychiatrists sometimes call displacement, which occurs when the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt to be dangerous or unacceptable. We have displaced what should be a concern for gun control with a concern for one of many symbols of the force that motivated this particular mass murderer.
Let’s be clear about what has happened: The shooting of nine innocent people during a Bible study session at an old-line black church by a lunatic who was also a racist has had an earthshaking impact on the country—our people, our leaders, our news media. Most of us are horrified and crying out to do something in a way that’s reminiscent of the country’s reaction after the first Selma March or the killing of students by National Guard soldiers at anti-war demonstrations at Jackson State and Kent State universities.
But where have our politicians and the news media pushed us? To attack one of many manifestations that Dylann Roof hated African-Americans. If Roof had not fetishized the Confederate flag, he would still have displayed virulent racism: He still would have subscribed to the ideas of the white supremacist group, Council of Conservative Citizens. He still would have frequently used racial invectives when speaking with friends. He still would have written his sick manifesto.
The Confederacy wasn’t even the only racist country whose flag Roof incorporated into his self-expression. He also displayed parts of the Rhodesian and the Apartheid-era South African flags on his clothing.
To be sure, Dylann Roof reminds us what an embarrassment it is to the United States that the flag of enemies of freedom, defenders of slavery and traitors to the United States still flies on public property. But taking it down will have at the most a very minor impact on the rate of mass murders in the United States. At best, racism will become somewhat less socially acceptable, which may lead to several mentally ill people having one less reason to pick up a gun and hunt the innocent.
But far from every case of mass murder has had to do with race. Spurned love, mommy issues, peer rejection and social isolation have all compelled wackos to kill. But virtually all mass murderer in recent years (as opposed to terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh and the Al Qaida operatives) have had two things in common: 1) They’ve been mentally ill; 2) They’ve gotten hold of one or more guns.
Clearly we have to do something about the ease at which mentally ill people can legally obtain arms and the type of high-grade military arms available for purchase by the public. We have to expand gun registries, increase the waiting time for gun sales, toughen laws regarding keeping guns in households where mentally ill people live, end the sales of automatic weapons, and ban all firearms in schools, universities, government buildings, restaurants, theatres, libraries, arenas, stadiums and any place where the legal occupancy is more than 10 people.
But we’re not considering any of it, not even talking about it. Instead of going after the major tool that psychopaths use to commit mass murder, we’re going after one of the many symbols employed by one mass murderer to express the reason that motivated his horrific action.
Ending all mainstream glorification of the Confederate flag is a great thing, even though extreme racists will continue to revel in its symbolism. But it has nothing to do with preventing more tragedies like the Emanuel AME Church massacre. If we want to end mass shootings, we have to take the view of private ownership of guns shared by the rest of the world and toughen gun laws.