Is there nowhere, not even a church sanctuary, that can provide sanctuary? Is there no end to the senseless slaughter? Is this truly who we are, a nation so torn by racial strife that it repeatedly must come to violent death?
The families, friends and fellow congregants of nine black worshippers slain in Charleston, South Carolina are reaping unendurable agony. This pain grows from the violence a white 21-year-old suspect, Dylann Roof, is accused of sowing Wednesday night.
A tearful Gov. Nikki Haley said, " . . . the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken." And a weary President Barack Obama said the nation "will have to reckon with the fact that this kind of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries."
When Roof showed up at the Emanuel AME Church Wednesday night during a Bible study meeting, the members on hand and the pastor, Clementa Pinckney, welcomed him. Roof reportedly sat with them for an hour before opening fire, killing nine, including Pinckney.
Pinckney, a state senator, was a fighter for justice, and an always-composed man of God. The dead include other pastors, a librarian, a youth track coach and retirees. The oldest was Susie Jackson, 87. The youngest, Tywanza Sanders, 26.
Roof has been arrested once for drugs and once for trespassing. He was given a .45-caliber handgun as a birthday present in April. His Facebook page shows him in a jacket with flags that represent Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa. Another photo shows a Confederate-pride plate on his car.
The Emanuel AME Church traces its roots back two centuries. It has been a legendary linchpin for the civil-rights movement. One of its founders led a failed slave rebellion 193 years ago this week. Is that why this happened? We've yet to learn his motive. But Roof, according to one of the three survivors of the shooting, told them, "I have to do it. You're raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go." Once again, this false justification for racial violence that has poisoned race relations for more than four centuries resurfaces: that in America it's really whites who need to fear blacks.
The violence echoes the bombing of a Birmingham church and killing of innocent children decades ago. But it also echoes the gun-toting madmen who bloodied Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, and Fort Hood, Texas.
Is the crux of this mayhem madness or guns or the racial strife that we often try to convince ourselves has faded away? Isn't giving such a troubled young man a gun for his birthday a failure? Shouldn't friends and family have challenged his apparent fondness for the Confederate flag or pro-apartheid symbols?
We'll learn more about Roof, his past and politics. But we already know we are a nation repeatedly torn asunder by violence. Race is often at the heart of that violence, as is madness.
How do we stop this? How do we heal, and prevent the next brutal blow?