Rethinking America

America’s Dark Shadows: The Charleston Massacre

White supremacist Dylann Roof extends a national tradition of ritual slaying.

Credit: Artamonov Yury - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Gun-massacres are rooted in the American way of life and tied to struggles over identity.
  • Gun laws and the rituals of their rhetoric are potent symbols that speak to the spirit of the age.
  • Unlike the rest of the world, US citizens are seen as a source of justice equal to the state.
  • American myth is as dark as a cave painting, and in enacting death, just as ritually primitive.
  • US origin myths (Minutemen and Tea Party) are all framed as acts of virtuous insurgency.

Though painful, this statement cannot be avoided: The gun-massacre of innocents is integral to the American way of life. Call it part of our foundational myth. It is the red reality through which a continent was taken and settled.

Today, we call an act like the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina “tragic,” “incomprehensible,” “heartbreaking” and “senseless.” Yet, we should face these events as what they really are, a much bigger national tradition. Ritual slaying is everywhere in our American history, especially sacrificial killing with guns.

Even if we cannot admit this, American exceptionalism is never better illustrated than in ritual human execution. Other cultures have slaughterers. Only we have made ritual killers such a mirror of us. In our history and our cinema, there are a few — like John Brown — we even celebrate.

Our gun-slinging killing rituals are also dark expressions of a political ethos that surrounds the theology of the citizen’s relationship to the state. “Citizen and state” is the most contentious creedal element in national identity, and is itself argued through the symbolic venue of killing with a gun.

Pro-gun and anti-gun sectarianism remains the deepest fissure, a split almost, in our national identity today.

Gun massacres are the American way

Fast food and strip mall, school, university and church shootings around the country should raise an existential national question: Why are gun-massacres so rooted in the American way of life — and so tied to the political struggle over collective identity?

In recent days, so many of us (once again) argued these bitter contentions, without ever being able to engage the core question. The anti-gun sect rails against “the gun culture,” while pro-gun acolytes hold high the banner of liberty and virtue put at risk by the evil deranged.

Neither of these partisan visions — almost religious in their incanted rhetoric — want to admit that America’s cultural mix of gun and justice, liberty and order, has embedded within all of us a collective national vision of righteous violence — which is all too often revealed to us in the dark mirror of mass killing of innocents.

It is not a gun culture, but rather an ethos in which the gun is both instrument and symbol: That we all share.

These are the working parts of America’s ethos:

First, the gun is sacred in its relationship to American identity, and hallowed in our history. It is an instrument not only of fetishistic power. It also comes vested with a dispensation for those who use it righteously — because, if used purely, it is the instrument of justice itself.

Second, only in the United States do righteous individuals and groups still feel empowered to exact retributive justice, even if now this is legitimately celebrated only in the orbit of folklore and art. What sets the U.S. political debate apart from that of the rest of the world is that it is only here that citizens are still seen as a source of justice equal to the state.

Third, rituals of gun-retribution have no working, moderating cultural framework to keep their grisly work noble and clean. Our mythic rituals slide easily into darkness. Perhaps that is why, in myth and in the movies, dark-side killing outside the law is still celebrated.

American myth, over the centuries, can be as dark as any cave painting, and in the enactment of death, just as ritually primitive.

The gun is sacred

Every national ethos has its unique joys and terrors. Americans celebrate the gun as our sacred instrument of liberty. Yet guns undoubtedly bring terror when used against the nation’s very identity.

For fragile early human groups, objects of special power were critical to their very belief in themselves. They were true fetishes, in that their power protected the band in supernatural ways. Later, knives became sacred tools. Theirs was a power even over death. Then the sword became a political fetish for both rulers and their people.

Many ages removed, America’s magical object is the gun. The gun defines us and protects us. It is also the chosen instrument of sacrifice, retribution and justice.

Individual and group retributive justice

America is a society obsessed with order, and yet a people that also revels in a collective mythic embrace of disorder. Historically, the formation of American identity has relied on a rushing torrent of pirates and freebooters which, with the benefit of glorifying hindsight, we call “pioneers” and “frontiersmen.”

Their justice was personal, with verdicts decided in group-meeting and punishments laid down by brotherly posse. This was face-to-face justice with a rope and a tree.

Our very myths of origin — of Minutemen and “Tea Party” — are all constructed as acts of virtuous insurgency. Like “traditional societies” — from ancient Scotland to still-ancient Afghanistan — American Liberty in the modern West has roots in the tribal rebellions against the outsider and his tyrannies.

We should not wonder that our legends of America’s chaotic birth and building are jammed with stories of retribution exacted and wrongs righted through the gun. That so much was personal, or the united conviction of stern and aroused communities, speaks to American notions of political liberty interwoven with primitive tribal threads.

It is our canon and lore. We have seen it shot through our cinema-eye — from the Johnson County War (“Heaven’s Gate”) to the Battle of Matewan (“Matewan”).

People are fighting The Man (read: the Establishment) or they are fighting for pure survival against the primitive. Witness John Ford’s sweeping “Drums Along the Mohawk,” which righteously celebrates the slaughter of Indian nations allied to our British enemy.

But these are not simply righteous community narratives. As communities and bands and families took up the gun, so too did individual men.

That is why the American ethos is packed with personal, individual retribution and revenge.

Cultural archetypes

The wronged man, the husband whose wife and children have been murdered on the prairie — whether by Indians, renegades, former bunkmates, Union soldiers or robber baron minions — must now exact full and fair revenge, and maybe a bit more, just to leave a righteous maker behind.

How many American Westerns, from the recent ones such as “Defiance,” “The Quick and the Dead,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and “Dawn Rider” to vintage ones such as “Hannie Caulder,” “True Grit,” and “Heaven’s Gate” — movies in which women seek retribution as much as men — are our granite rock of violent identity?

This retribution-taking man is iconic in a cycle of films by Clint Eastwood. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” reveals the wronged man fighting the whole of the unjust new Union order, one loaded Colt Army and Navy revolver after another, until his glorious death, in a personal rebellion against the state.

Most recently, Liam Neeson has in effect created an entire sub-genre of the wronged man — innocent and pure — exacting retribution in the act of rescuing or avenging blood kin: Itself a most ancient trope.

Even more remarkably, American retributive justice is often taken, and in a literary setting also justified, against injustice — even if that means going up against constitutionally-legal authority.

Gun retribution slides easily into darkness

But Eastwood also establishes levels of righteous retribution where a single man may justly destroy (and slaughter) an entire, wayward community. In “High Plains Drifter,” he does exactly that.

A bad town must be punished, and a single man — judge, jury and executioner — somehow has authority from American scripture to use the fetish stone to kill everyone in a sinner community. In “Unforgiven,” he kills The Law himself.

Righteousness as retributive justice has its evil, sinning and gone-to-Hell side. For every colonial community fighting for its life against savage assault, there was much more sacrificial burning of Indian towns by us as “settlers.” Witness the wholesale immolation of the Pequot nation — men, women and children — by a Puritan theocracy that had found the Pequot’s continued existence inconvenient.

Equally, the group massacred by a Mormon band at Mountain Meadows also represents the extinction of an entire little human community — except that they are wagon-train Americans — a disposable band of about 150 innocents.

Our American past is full of small groups and communities that committed terrible acts against others. Our government, or those who acted in its name, did the same.

American contemporary consciousness does not keep close our 400-year killing of innocents. There is, however, a choice narrative of righteous mayhem — much of it small group or very personal.

Some, like John Brown, have been canonized for their mayhem. No one calls John Brown and his sons terrorists today, even as we note that the pre-civil war U.S. government tried and executed him for that very crime.

America, exceptional

In the current presidential campaign, as in the last one, the banner “American Exceptionalism” has been waved very liberally by both sides and hoisted high in each candidate’s stump-rhetoric. A nation so steeped in its blood-sacrificial narratives of belief — celebrating them even as it cries out for their legal sanction — is indeed an exceptional nation.

Mental illness may explain how individual persons “snap” — but it is hardly sufficient. We must recognize and acknowledge how deep-rooted narratives shape our very ethos. Only these can tell us why those who snap always seem to reach out for such rooted rituals.

Why would a retributive killer only target a small few? What is the purpose of such slaughter? Here we might propose that Dylann Roof was engaging, however unconsciously, in a form of ritual human sacrifice, in which the ritual power of such a symbol act might in itself reestablish the otherness and essential inhumanity of “the Negro.”

In this sense Roof’s ritual mirrors Baruch Goldstein’s horrific Cave of the Patriarch’s Massacre, in which retribution was intended to shift the relational terms between Israelis and Israeli Palestinians.

Roof was out to break the fragile ligaments of brotherhood that have slowly grown between black and white Americans.

“Unhinged” killers show us, indelibly, the dark side of our national identity — and our celebrated history. To this shooter, even more than some others, he was not engaging in abstractions or killing just for the sport — he saw himself in our country’s celebrated mold of the man enacting mass justice by gun and preserving the divinely established order of things.

Why nothing is going to change

Americans cannot recognize their own blood-identity rites, even as they so passionately rise either to attack or defend them. We cannot see how guns are sacred to us. We cannot see how our tradition of sacrificial and retributive violence is closely intertwined with our collective imagination.

In yet another collective ritual of denial, our “national conversation” is all about practical measures to change our “culture of violence” (meaning gun control).

There are several shortfalls to this “conversation.” The first is the false claim that America is a culture of violence. We see our national ethos, like a religion, as a complete blueprint for life.

Of course, no culture celebrates evil. Instead cultures enshrine virtue as they see it. And it is very much the power of virtue — however wayward — that animates America’s abiding narrative of retribution and the sacred wielding of the gun.

Yet, the biggest shortfall is insisting that “gun control” is a matter of simple, solving regulation. Because the gun is such a sacred symbol, the ways we assign approval and sanction of its possession and use are also symbolic. None of this is about anything so practical as regulation.

Guns transcend practicality, into symbols

Gun control laws in America are not matters of practical consideration. Gun laws — and the rituals of their rhetoric and passage — are potent symbols that speak to the spirit of the age. We can see this in the 1980s wave — accompanying the “Reagan revolution” — in which state after state passed laws permitting concealed carry.

Their real “purpose” was a symbolic enunciation of the unbridgeable political authority of the individual citizen — and, by the same token, they are a renunciation of the power of the state.

Many believe that, as written in American narrative, the gun defines the relationship of citizen to state. Anti-gun laws ironically have the same intent — as rites designed to lay down American virtue.

This is why the divide on the gun issue should be considered as almost religiously sectarian. The struggle is apparently over the constitutional nature of the relationship between the citizen and the state. But the real tussle is a tug-and-pull over the nature and future direction of American identity.

Hence, paradoxically, anti-gun advocates employ a language that is as deeply theological as the credos of pro-gun acolytes in its own brand of passionate messaging. America’s gun pro and contra is not what is seems.

Our pretend “national conversation”

In effect, gun-debate creates a confessional space where as Americans we can acknowledge the dark side of our sacred rites. At the same time, we can perversely celebrate them in the ringing declarations of our collectively vehement debate. We call these shouting sessions “debates,” yet they are not. Pitchfork bouts would be closer to the truth.

Their bombast should show us why our “national conversation” on guns is in fact something entirely different. A conversation is the meeting of two parties sharing a congenial worldview. America’s gun debate is instead a series of homilies delivered by the two American sects: pro-gun and anti-gun.

What we are treated to is a dueling set of fiery, contending sermons. The national congregation can participate in either one of two passionately opposed and heavily staged sectarian interpretations of the relationship between the state and its citizens.

These rites may remind us of theological explanations for why the world is as it is, but their main effect — and purpose — is to reinforce the high walls of our differing worldviews. These ritualistic exchanges do nothing to help us see ourselves.

Nothing is going to happen. If it did, one thing would have to come first: recognition. Just getting to that place of self-awareness would represent an amazing achievement. It would be nothing short of America stepping outside of itself.

We will go nowhere as a society until we take this first step. It is the first step to leaving behind our terrible Iron Dream.

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About Michael Vlahos

Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs.

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