Yes, it was mass murder conducted with a gun. Yes, the alleged murderer of innocent worshipers in Charleston flaunted representations of the Confederate battle flag, among other symbols of his disaffection for modern, multiracial society. So let's just take the easy way out, excuse ourselves and absolve society at large of any responsibility, and blame the gun and the battle flag. See how easy that is? Now we can sleep at night.
Far be it from me to excuse the flood of guns washing through American society like the muddy, soggy aftermath of a tropical storm, resisting all efforts at cleaning up. While I personally appreciate the machined precision of a well-made firearm, and have long enjoyed an association with weapons, I would be happy to see a severe reduction in the number of small-arms in our society. And I am not frightened by the thought of a sensible program of gun control, just as I am not bothered by the fact that some of my medications are controlled and I have to jump through a couple of hoops to acquire them.
As for the Confederate battle flag, I once held it in high regard. I revered, and still do, soldiers who fought valiantly, vastly outnumbered, in a hopeless cause they did not choose. It was a disastrous, criminally murderous war, fought for reasons no sane person today would select. But for that time and in those circumstances, it made some kind of sense to those in control. And so off went our ancestors, the great majority of them not slave holders, and fought in what many considered defense of their homeland, and for the right to separate and establish their own country, or simply because they were expected to go fight and that's what real men did. And in defense of a system of human bondage we see now as so evil that it makes you want to vomit.
My respect for my Confederate ancestors, though, who served so well though in an awful cause, no longer extends to the battle flag. That symbol was long ago co-opted by the ignorant, the racist, the alienated. There is no honor left to it. I would like to see it disappear.
But if the Confederate battle flag disappeared tonight and small arms were reduced to a fraction tomorrow, neither event would solve the problem. There seeps through our nation like a deadly gas escaped from a laboratory a noxious fume that fertilizes the growth of the kind of evil inflicted upon innocent humans in Charleston. If you are one of those whose comments I read every day, sneering your opinion that any black American who has achieved distinction must have been a product of Affirmative Action, which you equate with unwarranted and unearned help upward, you are cranking out the poison. Many express the wish for disaster, even death, to be heaped upon President Obama. Some insist this has nothing to do with race. I don't believe you, of course, but even if it's true, what effect do you suppose that has upon the muddled brain of a nut case in South Carolina? Or anywhere else. Of course, most of us never express these outrageous threats and dreams. But if we accept them, laugh at them, tolerate them, we are helping to crank out the deadly gas.
I don't excuse myself. I am part of a society that still, too often, lets the hatred spill out about us and says nothing. It is so easy and sometimes downright enjoyable to point out the flaws of others, especially if they look different. Or if they worship differently. I have angered a few acquaintances and probably a few relatives by reacting to some of this stuff, but not often enough. I promise to do more.
It would be good to be rid of the irritant of the now long-soiled and dishonored Confederate battle flag, and it would be good if we could somehow achieve a sensible, rational system of gun control. But I don't think either will solve the underlying problem. Walt Kelly's Pogo described our situation just right when he said, "We have met the enemy and he is us."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."