WASHINGTON — Unspeakable, unimaginable, incomprehensible and unthinkable are the words we’ve heard and used to describe the horrific murders of nine African-Americans as they prayed in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, shot by a hate-filled racist on a genocidal purge.
These are all we can summon to describe an event that is beyond our comprehension. How could the shooter sit for an hour of Bible study and prayer with the very people he intended to kill? Suspect Dylann Roof, now in custody, made his mission clear when 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders tried to talk him out of shooting his aunt, Susie Jackson.
No, you have to go, Roof said. Blacks are “raping our women and taking over the country.”
Then he opened fire.
We know this from a witness, the single person spared so that she could recount what happened. When Sanders dived in front of his aunt to protect her, he took the first bullet. It didn’t matter who died first, Roof had told Sanders before he shot him, because he was going to kill them all anyway.
We try to place ourselves in that church in that time, sitting with the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator and a married father of two children. His booming voice, replayed in videos, and the testimony of friends will echo in our memories for a long time. Yet the imagination hits a wall. It is too painful to ponder those last moments when these nine people, ranging in age from 26 to 87, realized that the person they had welcomed into their sanctuary, if not possessed of evil, was in that moment not quite human.
If any consolation can be found in the carnage, it is that the victims’ spirits were close to God when they were taken.
The grief Charleston and all of us feel is nauseating. The layers and layers of meaning in that single, sick act — the church’s historic role as a meeting place for blacks from before the Civil War through the civil rights era to the present — add extra dimension to losses so profound and freighted with sorrow that one weeps for humanity.
To the people of Charleston, among whom I count myself as my family settled there more than 300 years ago, this senseless murder was a deep gouge in the soul of a city that has deliberately reconstructed itself as both a place of beauty and a beacon of diversity. For most of recent history, blacks, who make up about a third of the city’s population, and whites, have governed the city together with the mutual goal of racial harmony and cooperation. Much credit goes to the leadership of Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who was mayor when I began covering him in the late 1970s as a reporter for Charleston’s afternoon paper.
You’ve likely seen him on TV — the white-haired fellow wearing tortoise-shell glasses and bearing the countenance of a man bereaved. He is one of the nation’s longest-serving mayors for good reason. Not only did he envision that Charleston could become a tourist destination but he has been a leader for social justice and racial reconciliation for decades.
Back when I sat in the council chambers taking notes, Riley presided over a City Council that usually voted along racial lines. The mayor cast the tie-breaking vote, most often to my recollection in agreement with the African-American council members. Although a Democrat, Riley’s wasn’t an ideological vote. Rather it was the result of extensive reasoning, the process and culmination of which he shared in a conciliatory tone that has served him and his city well.
Charlestonians, black and white, have responded to his leadership with civic pride and racial unity, as television viewers have witnessed these past few days. At least several residents have reminded reporters that the shooter wasn’t from Charleston. We’re not like that, they were saying.
Thus, my sadness as I write is also for Riley, who has worked so hard to achieve what was unimaginable not so long ago — a vibrant, diverse city where race isn’t swept under the rug but discussed with mutual respect and purpose. This is the Riley difference.
As I hear talk-show hosts scramble to turn this tragedy into issues — gun control, race, mental illness, what’s next? — I can’t help thinking that some manners are in order. People need time to recover from shock and to heal. Grief isn’t bound by deadlines or expressed in sound bites. Southerners, especially, like to take time with their mourning.
Let’s allow them.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.