I love my YMCA. It’s a very short drive from home and the faces I see are representative of the mix of people who live in my neighborhood. As I make my way to the group room for yoga class, I always pause a tiny bit to look in at the wee ones in the child care room. When all your kids are grown, those crying toddlers can, believe it or not, bring a smile.
Workouts are my form of worship. As I understand it from a recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center on belief in America, I’m quite representative of a growing group that describes itself as “unaffiliated” with any organized religion. I commune with my higher being while celebrating nature’s beauty and the poetry of human movement. Whether I’m running on a trail alone or in the gym with an exercise group, my spirit finds peace and salvation through connecting the mind and body. I believe that God exists in that communal part of us — that which makes us human is what makes us divine.
As I walked to class this morning, I found myself thinking about the massacre in Charleston. On the verge of tears, I couldn’t help but imagine what a mass shooting at the YMCA, my place of worship, would be like. Charleston, like preceding crimes against humanity, involved innocents. Congregants, joined together in their place of sanctuary, were slaughtered for no other reason than the murderer hated them.
My husband, a good man with a gentle spirit, had been heartsick from some of the political response to this heinous act. As we’d walked through our neighborhood the previous evening, he’d mulled over the day’s news. A comment from a politician that churchgoers with firearms might have limited the carnage particularly upset him: “I don’t want to have to carry a gun to feel safe. My right to NOT carry a gun is being taken away.”
That comment is why the horror in Charleston is an act of terrorism.
Terrorism vs. Hate Crime
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as acts within national borders violating federal or state law that are “dangerous to human life,” involve “intimidation or coercion” of the general population, attempt to “influence the policy of a government again through intimidation or coercion, and “affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”
Because Charleston involved a white murderer and black victims within a church, the quick classification for this abomination is “hate crime.” Again, looking to the FBI for definition, a hate crime is a “traditional offense” (exemplified by murder, arson, or vandalism) that has an “added element of bias.” The FBI further explains that Congress more specifically defined those elements of bias — “for the purposes of collecting statistics” — as race, religion, disability, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.
One further clarification by the FBI: “Hate is not a crime.”
Dealing with Hate
Though hate isn’t a crime, it’s not something that should be passively tolerated. It’s a sickness, a negative malady that has spread a fog of disgust over our political discourse. When was the last time you felt comfortable having a conversation about your thoughts on, say, reproductive rights, with someone you did not know well? Can you remember any social media exchange that didn’t devolve into a nasty spitting of name calling about, oh, affordable care? Americans have seemingly lost the ability to respectfully disagree on policy, resulting in an “us vs. them” mentality that makes compassion feel as stale as yesterday’s news.
Hate is a thread that snakes its way through what Americans say (or don’t say) about race. My soul is sickened by the fact that Reverend Martin Luther King’s eulogy in Birmingham is still apropos. How can it be that our great nation has not moved beyond this sad point in 52 years?
Why do we tolerate a climate of hate?
Every American has the right to go about his or her daily life, unafraid of being executed. The “logic” behind encouraging citizens to carry a firearm for safety in everyday activities is fundamentally flawed. It is unconscionable that teachers should need to become armed protectors of elementary school pupils or a congregation be expected to return fire during Bible study. A trip to the movies shouldn’t involve checking for exits in the event that a gunman reveals an automatic weapon.
Something in America’s approach to mass shootings is not working. In 2013, the FBI released a report that showed incidents of mass shootings in the US have been increasing. During the last 13 years, 486 people died in mass executions in our country — and, like a snowball rolling forth from hell, incidents have gained a hideous momentum. Of those 486 deaths, 366 occurred within the last 7 years. People who hate are clearly finding the guns and opportunities needed to slaughter fellow Americans who are otherwise peacefully living their lives.
Terrorists disrupt daily life to incite fear, using the slaughter of innocents to further sick manifestos and distorted personal beliefs. Terrorists do what they do to “change the world” through violence. How is this any different from what we have borne witness to in Charleston? Let’s remove “bias” from the equation — because what terrorist acts without bias? — and call this abomination what it is.
Those of us who believe in a country that loves all its citizens must change the dialogue surrounding mass shootings. We must protect the rights of citizens to live every day without fear, where encouragement to arm ourselves for safety’s sake while undertaking the mundane becomes laughable extremism. If Americans feel the need to daily arm themselves on their home soil, terrorists — domestic or international — have won.
After all, what sane parents anywhere would want to tell their high schoolers, “Going to the mall? Be safe — be sure to take your phone and your handgun with you when you leave” as a matter of course?
Not only do our factions of government need to work together to prevent potential terroristic shootings, we, the America people, need to do the important work of addressing and resolving the underlying climate of hatred within our country. We need to be moving forward, celebrating the humanity binding us all together, dedicated to eradicating underlying bias instead of mourning innocents’ deaths as some unexplainable tragedy.
This tragedy is not unexplainable. Everyone knows exactly what killed those peaceful worshippers in Charleston — racial hatred.
It’s time to quit providing opportunities for those wishing to terrorize innocent citizens through armed force and commit to moving our collective consciousness toward unification behind a safe America where all can flourish without fear. A government that cannot protect its people from armed attacks is a government under siege. It’s time to take America back.