Sun | Apr 30, 2017

Editorial: Mental illness, race and guns

Published:Saturday | June 20, 2015 | 6:00 AM

There is mounting evidence that race continues to be a huge issue in America. This week's deadly assault on an iconic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, by an angry white man adds to a long list of incidents that have ignited the debate about race relations in recent times.

For example, the names of black men like Freddie Gray, Mike Brown and Eric Gardener have become well known, for each met his demise during confrontations with the police. With each incident, emotions have been very high, touching off demonstrations and sometimes riots.

That Dylann Roof could have been welcomed into the church and spent an hour in Bible study before turning his gun on the members, killing nine, is being described as cold-hearted and evil in the extreme. He is said to have been planning this attack for six months.

Preliminary reports suggest that the 21-year-old high school dropout had mental issues, which tells a whole other story about America's approach to helping people cope with mental illness.

But history will not allow the world to dismiss Roof's bloody assault simply as the act of a "madman". His mental state and the ease with which he could acquire a firearm as a 21st birthday present must certainly add heft to the argument that serious gun-control laws are needed in America. We cannot ignore the environment that enabled him to own a weapon, given his problems with the law and his state of mind.

Roof's rampage is another example of a string of mass shootings that have occurred at schools and other public facilities across America. We easily remember Columbine and Sandy Hook among communities that suffered unspeakable horror in the past.

 

Recurring problem

 

It was noted when President Barack Obama commented on this incident that it was the 14th time during his presidency that he was bemoaning mass killings in his country. Along with the difficulties associated with race, it is obvious that violence is among the deepest and most intractable problems facing America.

Attacks against churches in America are said to have been rising since 1999. But even before that, there was the horrible 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four little black girls were burnt to death. Churches have remained soft targets for terrorists.

What is sad is that this massacre may not effect any real change, since the Second Amendment right to bear arms is embraced by a large group of influential Americans who have stoutly resisted any attempt to diminish this right.

But some persons will undoubtedly suffer in the aftermath of this incident. The congregation and families of the victims will long be affected. And persons who attend churches may now be frisked and subjected to body searches. Church leaders will now have to think about erecting security barriers and measures for their safety.

Evil persons intent on forcing their will on others have done a great deal to change the way we live in all societies. Public safety is no longer guaranteed, whether in church or school or theatre, or wherever people gather. We need only think of airline travel to recognise how much has changed since the terror attacks of 2001.

While it is difficult to predict if these threats can ever be eliminated from the face of the earth, it is urgent that deliberate speed be placed on ways of correcting this dire state of affairs.