A flag not worth flying

The evil that happened inside the Emmanuel A.M.E. Church on the evening of June 17th was more than just a lone gunman committing mass murder. Of course, many details surrounding the tragic event are still unknown, and speculating about the things we don’t know could cause us to overlook important facts. Then again, it’s easy to draw conclusions based on the obvious.

The accused killer — I won’t grant him dignity by using his name — has made some fact finding easy. He decided to post his thoughts on race and ethnicity on his own website. Over the course of nearly 2,500 words, this young man aired his disturbed views on Blacks, Jews, and Hispanics… focusing most of his negativity on people of color. Considering that his nine victims were black, it’s tempting to just suggest that he is just another bigot who chose to make his violent fantasies come true. But there’s much more.

In addition to his seething disgust of non-whites, this man wanted to be sure that we all knew another target of his hatred: the United States of America. He wrote about his hate of the American flag and of patriotism in general, and solidified that message with a series of photographs… including one where he is seen holding a burning Stars and Stripes.

But that’s not the only flag he featured.

In several photographs, the accused killer poses with what is commonly known as “The Confederate Flag”. The image that came to mind when you read that phrase is the iconic rebel flag that, while not an official flag of the Confederacy, is modeled after the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s the design seen on everything from the rooftop of the 1969 Dodge Charger of television fame to the decorations used by many Southern rock bands.

It’s also a reminder of a dark era in our nation’s history when many Americans turned their backs on the USA. The Army of Northern Virginia and many other Southern states and military units flew that flag during active hostilities in America’s Civil War. It was a flag meant to rally Confederate soldiers as they entered into battle against troops from the Union… from the United States.

We were taught that the Civil War was Americans fighting against Americans, but that’s misleading. Remember, those battles came about after 11 Southern states and some territorial regions seceded from the USA, forming what they wished to be their own federalized nation. Whether those states found justification within the language of the Constitution is an argument that remains unsettled, and one that we won’t bother to explore here. But what is clear is the intention of the Confederacy and its use of weapons of war to obtain that goal.

So, for a time in the 1860s, we can honestly say that the Confederate States of America was a separate nation… one that was fighting a horrific war with those states that continued to hold true to the USA. We can also honestly say that slavery was a primary motivating factor, though there are bits of truth in the argument that states’ rights was a key. Of course, one of the most prominent of those rights was tied directly to the ownership and forced labor of men, women, and children.

But we’re not here to study history, are we? We’re trying to understand the reasons why a young white man would walk into a historic black church in the city where the Civil War’s first shots were fired… and murder nine people.

Here’s where we have to start using appropriate language. This was not just a mass murder, nor just a hate crime. This was an act of terrorism. The shooter was, and should be treated as, a terrorist. But much of American media… and too many politicians… are afraid to say just that.
Why? After all, the shooter admitted to the police that he wanted to start a race war, so there’s your political connection. And this was a violent act committed in a symbolic place with the desire to cause fear and anguish. And… he had strong emotions against the American flag, while favoring a symbol of a country that once waged war with the USA. So why the hesitation to call him a terrorist?

Wait, you say, that rebel flag isn’t about hate. It’s a symbol of heritage. In a way, that’s true. But it’s a heritage of war, a war fought in no small part over slavery.

You want to express your Southern heritage? How about demonstrating Southern hospitality? Or preparing a feast of fried catfish, red beans and rice, and a pitcher of sweet tea? But not by flying a flag that sends a joint message of racial animosity and disrespect for the Stars and Stripes.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald on July 2, 2015.)

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