A horrible tragedy occurred earlier this week, when a young white male walked into Emanuel A.M.E. church in historic Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine congregation members. Unfortunately, many common responses to the massacre threaten to undermine efforts to seek real, substantive justice.

First, many people have condemned the act as “senseless violence.” Calling the violence “senseless” implies that the shooter did not have moral agency. What occurred on Wednesday night was not “senseless violence”: it was a cold, calculated, act of racial hatred.

Others have suggested that the shooter’s actions were due to “mental illness.” But mental illness does not make us kill each other—and mental illness is something to be treated with compassion. When we use the phrase “senseless violence,” or equate racism with mental imbalance, it becomes difficult to distinguish between evil and illness. If we refuse to use moral language in our discussion, we lose our ability to hold the perpetrators of such acts responsible for their actions. If we are to have any hope of seeking justice for the victims of attacks like these, we must call things what they are.

Third, a number of people have used the occasion to bring up the issue of police brutality and systematic racism. Police brutality warrants the attention of anyone who purports to be concerned with justice. However, it is not a bad thing that the shooter was apprehended peacefully, or that he will go to trial. It is a bad thing that some law enforcement officers do not treat everyone justly. Protesting an occasion when the criminal justice system worked (a suspect was quickly identified and apprehended, and will go to trial) seems misguided, if we seek justice for those who have been failed by the criminal justice system. Don’t protest a job well done: protest all the jobs poorly done.

Responding correctly to situations such as these is critically important. Characterizing a killer’s actions as senseless, racism as mental illness, or an efficient and safe arrest as wrong severely curtails our ability to reveal racism, murder, and injustice for what they are: evil. 

Matthew H. Young is a summer intern at First Things. His writing has been published in Civitas Review, the Carolina Journal, and other publications.

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