The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts confesses to not having had a huge immediate reaction to the news of the Charleston church shootings. Unfortunately, despite larger trends that point to a decline in gun-related murders in the United States, mass shooting incidents like these have become so common in recent years that when President Obama spoke to the nation Thursday, he was engaging in a ritual he’d done 13 times previously as president. Or, as the Economist put it:

The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity. The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualised and then blend into the background noise. That normalisation makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.

As an American, it is embarrassing to read that paragraph and realize the truth it contains.

Since we already know that the policy response to this attack will be “nothing,” it is worth considering whether there are non-governmental actions that can reduce the likelihood of this kind of terrorist action from happening again. And reading the stories that are trickling out about the shooter (who, rather than use his name, will simply be referred to here as “the murderer”) what jumped out to me was the statements his friends and acquaintances made to the press. Particularly this New York Times story by Frances Robles, Jason Horowitz, and Shaila Dewan.


Take this accounting from Joseph Meek, “a childhood friend who reconnected” with the murderer:

“He was saying all this stuff about how the races should be segregated, that whites should be with whites,” Mr. [Joseph] Meek said. “I could tell there was something inside him, there was something he wouldn’t let go. I was trying to tell him, ‘What’s wrong?’ All he would say was that he was planning to do something crazy.”
At first Mr. Meek said he did not take [the murderer] seriously. But he became worried enough that several weeks ago he took away and hid [the murderer’s] .45-caliber handgun, which [the murderer] had bought with money given to him by his parents for his 21st birthday. But at the urging of his girlfriend, Mr. Meek returned the weapon because he was on probation and did not want to get into trouble.
Now Mr. Meek and his girlfriend, Lindsey Fry, both of whom are white, say they feel guilt about the shooting. “I feel we could have done something and prevented this whole thing,” Ms. Fry said.

Well, yes. To Meek’s credit, it appears he tried to take some action. Which compares pretty favorably with another friend quoted in the story:

Another friend, Dalton Tyler, said that [the murderer] had begun talking about wanting “to start a civil war.” But like Mr. Meek, he did not always take [the murderer] seriously.
Mr. Tyler said on another occasion, the two were driving to a strip club by the zoo when [the murderer] saw a black woman, used a racist word and said, “I’ll shoot your ass.”
“I was just like, ‘You’re stupid,’ ” Mr. Tyler said. “He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.” (emphasis added)

I have stared at that highlighted statement for the past hour trying to make some rhyme or reason out of it, and have failed miserably.

My Washington Post colleague Karen Attiah wrote that this murderer “violently shatters one particularly entrenched myth that society holds about racism — that today’s millennials are more tolerant than their parents, and that racism will magically die out as previous generations pass on.” But Tyler’s quote suggests a slightly different problem — some millennials are so tolerant and non-judgmental that they will not even weigh in when a friend spouts racist views. It inspires every middle-aged-person instinct I have in my being to mutter “kids these days” and let them know it’s totally okay to judge people who hold abhorrent worldviews.


This is one quote, about one aberrant human being. Drawing grander lessons from it is probably a mistake. Furthermore, calling for more judgment in society about one’s friends and neighbors is a dicey proposition. It seems appropriate in this instance — and yet a complete overreaction in the case of, say, free-range parenting (an overreaction that created its own problems in South Carolina).

I’d like to say at this point that I have a deep philosophical principle that permits us to discern when greater societal judgment is good and when it leads to overreactions by organs of the state. But I don’t. Rather, I have a simple plea — isn’t it likely that there is a vast middle zone of  judgment that permits people to not call the cops when they see a free-range child in a park, but take more concerted moral action when a friend or co-worker starts uttering violent, racist viewpoints?