Charleston: Lessons to Be Learned

JUN 22 | Reprinted from The Screaming Moderate (

The killings in South Carolina have produced many human emotions, some expected, some unexpected.

The unexpected are what struck me the most. First, let me say, this was a, premeditated, horrible mass murder for reasons we all know – the racist basis for them, the chilling shooter sitting in the Bible Study group an hour before pulling out his gun and killing everyone there except one he wanted as a witness to his killings, to the cold, empty eyes we’re becoming too accustomed to seeing when photos of these killers are published.

The unexpected though was: The families of the murdered within hours forgiving the killer, not without understandably raw emotions, but still publicly forgiving him and praying for his soul as their church teaches them to do.

The other reason was the reaction of the city of Charleston which was – peaceful. No violence, no protests, just pulling together regardless of color to grieve the horrible experience they all now have to endure. A city demonstrating that, yes, like all cities, they have crazy people among them, doesn’t react equally crazily in the face of such hate-filled violence.

Those were the two after-thoughts that I came away with: forgiveness and peace. It can be done.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to solve:

  • The problem of guns and what to do about them in a meaningful, realistic way, not just a rhetoric to get through the moment.
  • Mental health and how best to deal with it, even though we will never fully deal with the resulting behaviors of mental health, we should – and I mean of all us – be better at detecting it and, more importantly, doing something about it. This killer’s friends saw signs.
  • Hatred, which we will also never fully deal with. The citizens of Charleston sure gave us a demonstration that it can be done. They didn’t react with hate against each other.
  • The Confederate flag is a symbol. A bad symbol. Like the swastika. It is a symbol not of the Confederate states, but the battle flag of the Confederate states. And let us not forget, that was a war over racism. And the Confederacy lost.

A friend, Rich Galen, wrote in his column today that there is a road in Virginia, right outside of Washington, D.C., that is named for Jefferson Davis. I’ve driven over it so many times, I stopped associating it with the leader of the Confederacy. It was just a road. An ugly one at that. Get rid of that flag in South Carolina and get rid of Jeff Davis Highway, as Rich suggests.

Will those things stop these killings or the hatred? No, but they are two things we can do, the right things to do, while the bigger issues – guns and mental health – I hope start to finally be dealt with.

But when the Republican presidential candidates avoid the question of the Confederate battle flag because they worry about winning or losing the South Carolina primary, we have a problem. When they dance around even better controls on who gets a gun, we have a problem.

Lady and gentlemen of the GOP presidential field, it is time to speak out.

I assume there are at least a few of you who deplore the display of the Confederate battle flag. Say so. Those of you who support the flag, say so too.

I assume there are some of you who know that we can do a better job controlling guns in this country and that there are things we can do to try to avoid another senseless mass killing – we thought so after Columbine, we thought so after Newtown, and we think so again now. Say so.

We all know no answer to these problems is the perfect answer but political solutions are always imperfect.

This namby-pamby answer that “the flag is an issue for the citizens of South Carolina to resolve” is bull. Sure it is legally an issue South Carolina must resolve. But you, as people who aspire to be president of the United States can be, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for — oh yeah, LEADERS in the effort. If you can’t lead on gun control, or health, or other issues, seems to me the Confederate battle flag is one you can all handle.

Editor’s Note: B. Jay is a former deputy White House press secretary to Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also headed the communications offices at the Republican National Committee, U.S. Department of Commerce, and Yale University. He is a former reporter and is the retired Senior Vice President of APCO Worldwide’s Washington, D.C., office.