Photo by Howard ArnoffCharleston’s Emanuel AME Church

Just when it seemed that it couldn’t get any worse, comes this: nine innocent people murdered at a prayer service in an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, evidently by a lone white gunman. The killer’s purpose seems to have been to set a match to the always-dry tinder of racial comity. A survivor of the massacre said that the suspect, Dylann Roof, told his victims: “You have to go. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” If this proves accurate—early reports from such events are notoriously changeable—any hopes that the simmering racial tensions of the last year would soon blow over are probably at an end.

Mass murder of African-Americans by a white man stirs echoes of an uglier period of race relations in this country. In particular, the murder of Christians at prayer invites comparison with the 1963 bombing deaths of four innocent girls at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Incalculable good has been achieved in race relations in the ensuing 50 years. America shed the skin of legal segregation, elected a black president, and saw the appointment of black attorneys general and black secretaries of state. But we’re told constantly that the issue remains unsettled. We are reminded—often, it seems, for the express purpose of sowing division—that the ghosts of slavery and Jim Crow haunt us always.

This discord is not foreordained. It’s entirely within our power to avoid descending into a profitless cycle of racial animus and recrimination, though this will require politicians and community leaders to speak tactfully and soberly. It will require decency and neighborliness. If the past is any guide, today and for the next several weeks, those qualities could be in short supply, as we will likely be treated to endless media fulmination on the question, “Who is to blame?”

Obscured by the passions this event will probably cause is the increasingly relevant issue of soft-target terror, which the National Catholic Register, with unfortunate timeliness, devoted an article to yesterday. “[C]hurches and religious facilities . . . remain extremely vulnerable,” said James Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. “[B]ecause it’s virtually impossible for them to serve their mission as places for people to go to worship and thus be accessible to the public without onerous security hurdles that they have to jump through.”

Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in a church pew, scoping the exits and thinking, “What would I do if someone opened fire in here right now? Would I be able to carry these kids and run, or would I have to shield them with my body?” I used to think that this was post-9/11 paranoia; now I know that I’ll never be free of these thoughts.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 turned our airports and airplanes into lock-down zones. The 2012 Newtown massacre turned our schools into maximum-security fortresses. The Charleston slayings might work to similar effect on our churches. How long before we are all living, working, studying, traveling, and worshipping in impregnable boxes of bulletproof glass? What a world to offer our children.


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