On June 17, 2015, Dylan Root joined thirteen people at the prayer meeting and Bible study in the Immanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After listening for a good long while, he pulled out a Glock 41 pistol and shot dead nine of the Christians including their pastor, state senator Clementa Pinkney. Three other people survived the rampage. Root was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.
On November 5, 2017, Devin Kelley exited his pick-up trunk, shot two people outside the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, then entered the side door of the sanctuary and walked up and down the aisle shooting people with his Ruger 556 semi-automatic rifle. Twenty-six people died, and another 20 were injured. Fleeing the scene, Devin crashed his truck and shot himself dead.
On October 27, 2018, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during regular Shabbat services for three different Jewish congregations. He was armed with a Colt AR 15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock 315 semi-automatic pistols, with which he opened fire, killing 11 people and injuring seven. Bowers was arrested and charged with multiple state and federal crimes.
On March 15, 2019, Brenton Tarrant entered the first of two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand just as afternoon prayers had begun. He was carrying two as-yet-unidentified semi-automatic rifles and proceeded to kill 50 people and wound another 50. He was arrested at the scene and jailed on one charge of murder, with other charges expected.
Five things tie these shocking events together.
All where in houses of worship: one white Christian and one black Christian, one Jewish, and one Muslim. All were perpetrated by white men between the ages of 25 and 45. All involved legally purchased weapons of enormous firepower. The four killers had no known diagnosis of, or treatment for, mental illness.
These four mass shootings were, according to the stated intent of their perpetrators, motivated by racial or religious animus (the Texas killer having expressed his hatred of religion and religious people).
The emergence of people at prayer as targets for angry and armed men calls for understanding and response. First, houses of worship need to address the security of their people, and many religious organizations have done just this, empowering specific people and adopting appropriate policies. This parallels the rising demand on such entities to raise the bar as regards sexual misconduct.
Second, gun purchase regulations need to be tightened everywhere, not just in New Zealand (where this action was taken within days of the tragedy). A majority of Americans support such action and applaud the recent move in the national legislature to close loopholes for background checks during purchase of firearms. Much more needs to be done, including banning of assault rifles.
Third, public rhetoric needs to change. Preachers, podcasters, and certainly the President need to speak more clearly and forcefully against racial hatred and the corresponding incendiary rhetoric.
But there is a reason these last two actions will not happen, and this is the most dangerous element of this entire constellation of violence: these gunmen are the fringe representatives of a vision of America that sees our nation as under attack from the forces of secularism, socialism, atheism, and Islam.
Popular right-wing radio host Glenn Beck is an excellent example. He said this week during an interview on Fox New:, “I said what was coming and the last few steps were that the radicals, the anarchists, the Islamists, the socialists would all gather together [and] …see the opportunity…to destabilize Europe and America.”
He asserted that if things don’t change, we are “at the end of the country as we know it.”
What he means by “the country as we know it” is the America of a few decades ago, before abortion, homosexuality, integration, welfare, and Muslims interfered with the domination of his white “Christian” culture. This cohort of true believers is armed and eager to push back against any federal or regional government that resists their efforts to take the country back to the glory days of their whitewashed imagination.
From the enclaves of armed survivalists to the armchairs of ranting radio hosts, from the veiled threats of politicians to the public sermons of preachers, this particular movement toward making America great again is fueling the attacks on praying people all over the country.