The murder of nine African-American men and women in a Charleston, South Carolina church Wednesday night is an event that raises many troubling questions. Millions of people, in America and worldwide, want a deeper explanation than the superficial nostrums offered by the media and official political circles.
The initial media characterizations of senseless violence by a mentally disturbed individual explain nothing. Little better is the attempt, spearheaded by President Obama in his nationally televised remarks Thursday, to place the killings at Emanuel AME Church in a straight line of continuity with the atrocities of the civil rights era, such as the murder of four young black girls in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing.
The position that racism is the fundamental and even exclusive cause of the Charleston tragedy leads to an extremely demoralized perspective, as seen in the much-discussed commentary by comedian Jon Stewart at the beginning of his Thursday night television program. Stewart blamed the killings on a “gaping racial wound that will not heal, but we pretend doesn’t exist.”
Here racism is torn from its social and historical roots and transformed into an independent and permanent aspect of American social psychology, as though racial attitudes and relations today are unchanged from what they were in the Jim Crow South and the past half-century has been lived entirely in vain.
The public reaction to the Charleston massacre was one of horror and outrage. There was no significant support for Roof’s actions, as there was for the crimes of the Klan in the 1960s. And it was a tip from a white woman who recognized his car and followed him, at her white employer’s urging, that led to his arrest.
A deeper explanation of the Charleston massacre must be found, not in the alleged survival, in unchanged and ahistorical form, of the attitudes of the Jim Crow era, but in the contradictions of contemporary American society and global capitalism in the 21st century.
Racism may describe the motivation of Dylann Roof, but there have been dozens of such mass killings in the past two decades in which the individual motives have varied, but essentially the same social phenomenon has been expressed: alienated individuals, usually acting alone, erupting in homicidal rage against crowds of innocent people: students at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech; moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado; immigrants at a service center in Binghamton, New York; school children and their teachers in Newtown, Connecticut; constituents meeting a congresswoman in Tucson, Arizona.
Mass killings are a social, not individual, phenomenon, and must be understood as manifestations of a social malaise: the deepening contradictions of American capitalism, and, above all, the increasing resort to violence on the part of the American government at all levels.
President Obama noted in his remarks Thursday that “this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” The implication was that widespread gun ownership is the problem, another superficial and empty explanation favored by liberals and the Democratic Party.
The reality is that what most distinguishes the United States from all other countries is that the US government is continually engaged in “mass violence” around the world.
For the past quarter-century, US military forces have been involved in almost continual warfare: the first Gulf War (1991); Somalia (1992-94); Bosnia and Kosovo (1995-1999); Afghanistan (2001-the present); the second Gulf War (2003-2011); Libya (2011); and now the third war in Iraq, this time being waged in Syria as well (2014-the present). Add to that the “war on terror,” now approaching its 15th year, a conflict limitless in time and space, which has become the pretext for savage repression both abroad and increasingly at home.
Millions have died in these wars and civil wars, making US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama the leading mass murderers of the 21st century. Obama meets weekly with CIA and military aides to sign off on lists of people to be assassinated by drone-fired cruise missiles.
What have been the consequences of a quarter-century of American wars? Around the world, more than 60 million people are now refugees, the vast majority of them from countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, destroyed as functioning societies by US invasion or civil wars provoked and instigated by Washington for the purpose of dominating the oil resources of the Middle East and maintaining the world position of US imperialism.
And the harrowing death toll would be multiplied many times over if the US-instigated confrontations with Russia over Ukraine and China over the South China Sea should explode into military conflicts between nuclear-armed powers.
Within the United States, democratic forms of rule have steadily eroded, with the growth of a military-intelligence apparatus that dwarfs anything that has ever existed, and which increasingly looks on the American population itself as an enemy to be targeted. This is the context in which the enormous increase in police violence against workers and youth of all races must be understood. As Ferguson, Missouri demonstrated so graphically last year, the methods of war in Iraq and Afghanistan are being brought home against the American working class.
A quarter-century of war has polluted American politics, culture and the media with the glorification of military violence, incessant fear mongering, and the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment.
It is now routine for media pundits to speak of “taking out” people and political candidates to espouse murder in their campaign platforms. Only three weeks before the horrific events at Emanuel AME Church, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham launched his presidential campaign with this boast: “If I’m president of the United States and you’re thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I’m not gonna call a judge. I’m gonna call a drone and we will kill you.”
The growth of militarism is a manifestation of the dead end of American capitalism. Economic growth, to the extent that it takes place at all, is entirely for the benefit of the super-rich, who amass ever-greater personal wealth at the expense of the jobs and living standards of working people. Long gone are the days when the US economy set the pace for the world, or US workers enjoyed the highest living standards. American society is visibly crumbling: its schools, its physical infrastructure, its institutions.
What does America “stand for?” The objective social reality—war, drone assassinations, torture, rendition abroad; police violence, inequality, government spying at home—is the exact opposite of the official mythology of America as the land of freedom and opportunity.
The worst impact of this social crisis is on the younger generation, who have known nothing else but an America characterized by social decay, violence and reaction. Youth more than any other section of the population need ideals, hope, opportunity. Obama traded on those words only to betray them cynically, in favor of Wall Street and the CIA.
Only a handful of the most disoriented individuals will respond to this social crisis in the manner of Dylann Roof. Some others, taken in hand by reaction, will become the police thugs and CIA assassins and bourgeois politicians of the future. But the vast majority of young people and the working class as a whole are moving to the left and into mass struggles against the capitalist system and its rulers.
The task is to arm this coming movement with a revolutionary perspective that offers the only genuine hope to humanity: the struggle to put an end to capitalist violence, oppression and inequality and establish a world socialist society based on equality and human solidarity.