Whenever we experience a national crisis such as the act of terrorism inside the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC, by Dylann Storm Roof, three
things fascinate me. They fascinate me because each one represents a crossroads faced, and choices made to take one path and not another.
They fascinate me because of the parallel world of what-if, the world of the path not taken.
The Crossroad to Death
The first is the perspective of the perpetrator. Dylann Storm Roof made a decision to adopt a particular point of view, to accept certain ideas and to discard other ideas, and to act in violence instead of in peace. He chose to hate and to quell his personal fears with violence. Those choices set his life on a particular path that cannot now be changed, and have a profound effect on his community, his family, and his nation.
What if he had chosen to not spend his life in jail where we can dismiss him as an aberration and where we will all soon forget his hate? What if he had chosen to use peaceful discourse to advance his values? Or if he had simply chosen to see his advantages as a white American?
The Crossroad to Affirm Values
The next thing that intrigues me is the reaction of the surviving witness and families of the victims. The members of Mother Emanuel AME church and the families of the victims have chosen to act in peace and not in violence. They have chosen to remain true to their values as practicing Christians and to speak forgiveness to him for his actions, even while demanding justice be meted out. They have chosen to act with respect.
Why do people choose to forgive and act with peace while insisting on justice rather than to exact vengeance? What if had instead chosen to use a hate crime as an excuse to engage in other unlawful acts? What if they had instead chosen to storm the jail, to deliver their own swift justice?
The Crossroad to Justice
The third thing I find myself thinking about is the family of the Dylann Storm Roof. It must have been a horrifying moment when they recognized Dylann as the shooter. It must have been an agonizing decision to turn him in. Surely they are grappling with decisions daily, even hourly, about what to do now?
The way forward for the families of the victims is hard, but it is familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one in a senseless tragedy. It is a path cloaked in the support of a large and loving community that stretches around the world.
Beyond their own grief and confusion that they have shared through their public statement, I cannot imagine myself in their place. You can’t either. Mercifully, we do not have a frame of reference that allows us to put ourselves in their shoes. The way forward for the family of the perpetrator is not so familiar and it is, I suspect, largely a solitary journey. I like to think that the messages of forgiveness for Dylann’s acts are of comfort to them.
What if instead of turning him in, they had chosen to shelter Dylann or to help him escape the country? What if instead of the public statement of condolences they were quick to issue, they had chosen to shut the door and remain silent? They chose to remain true to their values of respect for the law and for justice when laws are broken.
I support the choice of James Gosnell Jr., chief magistrate of Charleston County, and presiding judge in the bail hearing, to ask that Charlestonians support both the families of the victims and the family of Roof. The root of the tragedy lies in an us-versus-them mentality and to portray the Roof family as unworthy of sympathy places blame beyond the actions and choices of the killer and only serves to perpetuate division.
Your Crossroads and Choices
You may be standing at a crossroad right now. In one direction is good, and in the other is evil. Perhaps your choices may be to move towards forgiveness or towards vengeance. Or simply, towards right or towards wrong. Maybe your crossroad may be more nuanced, as life often is, presenting you with a multitude of choices that fall somewhere in the uncomfortable middle, where no one choice seems right, the destinations are unclear, and you’re not sure in what direction to move. Or, perhaps your destinations are clear, but the right choice is less beneficial to you, the outcome is less satisfying, or the journey is less expedient, than the one you’d like to take.
When you’re standing at a crossroad and you’re not sure what choice to make, your best choice is the one that the members of Mother Emanuel AME Church and the families of the victims chose, the one that the family of Dylann Storm Roof chose. They chose to respect themselves by remaining true to their values, true to themselves.
Live Honest, Open, and True
There are many lessons coming from the massacre in Charleston. One that should not be overlooked is the lesson of choices made while standing at the crossroads. You can choose how you view your life and circumstances. You can choose how you express yourself. You can choose how you act on your values, no matter how others act, no matter how sorely your values are tested, no matter how the consequences affect those you hold most dear.
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