Dylann Roof and the Tradition of Southern Violence

“Someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me,” Dylann Roof wrote on the Web about defending the white race. On June 17, 2015, to the black members of the Charleston church whom he was about to shoot, he allegedly said, “I have to do it. You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.”

Roof’s perceptions of his personal obligation to take what he viewed as justified revenge were not personal quirks or even purely a matter of racism. They place him in a long tradition of violence in the American South.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker’s study of declining violent deaths globally, Pinker examines the exception that is America and especially the American South.

It’s not that America is gun-happy. Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans commit murders at a higher rate than Europeans. (Kindle location 2255)

Dylann Roof (raw story.com)

Dylann Roof
(raw story.com)

Within the U. S., murder rates by gun and other means have been the lowest in the northern band of states from New England to the northwest, and highest in the south.

The difference is not just a matter of southern racial conflict. Today, although blacks show higher rates of violence than whites nationally, the South is highest for the rates of both races. “Southern whites are more violent than northern whites, and southern blacks are more violent than northern blacks” (2278).

Why has the South had such a long history of violence? …[In Europe, monarchs controlled arms before nations became democratic. But] in America, the people took over the state before it had forced them to lay down their arms—which, as the Second Amendment famously affirms, they reserved the right to keep and bear. In other words Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. (2354)

Dylann Roof in fact was following a social contract of a different kind, the South’s venerable code of honor. The code stipulates that homicides in the cause of personal grievances or defense of self and property, while punishable, need not be viewed too severely. Even today, “Southerners do not outkill northerners in homicides carried out during robberies…, only in those sparked by quarrels” (2371).

Here is the basis for Roof’s self-proclaimed role as brave avenger of the honor of the white race. His state of mind, the availability of guns, the short-sightedness of racism, all played roles in the killing. But beneath them is the region’s historical weakness in the legal constraints, the cultural inhibitions, and the empathy that, for Pinker, are what a society needs if deadly violence is to decline.

Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violence

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be the most upbeat book you’ll ever come across. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining since our pre-history. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful and that humans, as David Hume observed, always tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker: "To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders."

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

The decline happened in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate for the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” raised questions about forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence and repetition of death stories in the modern media—“if it bleeds, it leads”—is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect deaths from war-caused famine and disease are included (Kindle location 1428). In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

It helps to remember that until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people, that it slowly reached 2.5 billion around 1950, and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of “worst” violent death events. To rank it by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in the 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million.

Compared to the 15 % violent death rate in pre-state societies, even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the life of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The book has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have pointed out the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced. The modern world seems too dangerous, and the bad news never stops.

Pinker makes no predictions about the future. We have to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. I remind myself, though, that my suburban life is almost completely safe from violent death and torture, and that is Pinker’s point. In our era of 24/7 terrorism and extremism, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.

The Family Dog Grows Older

I wrote about Ginger, our family’s Golden Retriever, a couple of years ago when she was 11. She is still living out her golden years with, so far, no visible or excruciating diseases. She’s become a fussier lady, finicky about kibble, loving broccoli and green beans, rejecting beets and tomatoes. She stays closer than she used to to the household humans in preferred order, the adult kids first, then my wife the food provider, then me. When my wife or I go upstairs, she stays with the one who is downstairs. When we both go up, she stands at the bottom of the stairs, takes a long, resigned look around, then unsteadily makes her way up. One eye is cloudy.

Ginger2015She has lived long enough for us to have an intense relationship with her but briefly enough for us to grasp the arc of her life. “Remember when Ginger….” The prospect of her dying is sad but not terrible, to me.  Her decline doesn’t feel like a failure to stay alive but, instead, a completion, a conclusion. Her life, when she passes, will have been a whole, a coming in and a going out, the existence of an individual, a self.

I would like to see other deaths this way, to view the wilting of plants or trees as completions, not as loss, to see the absence of elderly friends and family that way, to see my own aging that way. I would like to, but I’m not sure I can.