I didn’t plan to write or post any photos of Charleston, especially none related to the shooting that took place at a church here last month and that dominated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. But having walked past the site today and seeing the tributes outside I’ve ended up feeling like I do have something to say, or at the very least something I want to say.
Perhaps it is because I get most of my news from the internet whilst I’m travelling, and therefore haven’t been subject to the blanket rolling news coverage of the event most of you have probably seen, but the site seemed strangely different from what I expected. Or perhaps, just like how a beautiful scenic spot always looks better in person rather than through photographs, the scene of terrible tragedy simply feels much more emotional when you see it through your own eyes. In either case writing about it seems a cathartic way of dealing with my resulting emotions.
A few things stuck out to me on my visit. First, in front of the church as you approach it from King Street, the main shopping street in Charleston, is a small kids playground. As soon as I saw it I realised I was going to find walking past this spot much more emotional than I had thought it would be. It is perhaps the juxtaposition of such an evil act by such an innocent place. I am not at all religious and I’m sure there are many, of the more radical atheist persuasion out there who would, in the broader picture of things, reject the idea of a church as a place of innocence which has featured prominently in coverage of the event in news media, but you’d be hard pressed to come up with more of a symbol of innocence than a child’s slide. The playground was empty. When kids will ever be able to play there again, I don’t know.
Secondly, the church building itself does, to me at least, exude an innocence against which the crime seems more shocking. When I see a religious building, be it a church or a mosque or whatever, I am always reminded of their (admittedly self-proclaimed) role as a sanctuary. As I have gone about my trip I have learnt that inside a church or mosque I will likely find a few minutes respite from the heat, or from the noise, or from any hassle I am getting from people outside. In a bizarre way I guess in my mind they played a similar role to how I found 7Elevens in S.E Asia – they were places that were always there in my mind as a safe place I could make an exit to, if anything was to happen outside. Thus the idea of such a crime occurring inside such a sanctuary, a place from the outside so unassuming and similar to many of the other churches I have passed by or entered on my trip moved me.
As did the front of the church itself, the contrast between normality of the past and the grief of today. Tributes, be it flowers or written messages line the walls of the church, whilst, upon those very same walls are affixed signs of what once was and what will go on being, but now no longer the same. Forever different. A schedule of worship – a notice from builders showing churchgoers where a new lift would be installed. A plaque to the dead.
There seems little point in getting into the why’s and what fors of the shooting. The rest of the world will continue to look on as radical fringes in America ensure any attempt at gun reform dies a still birth, as, displaying bizarre leaps of logic, they are fearful that any such attempt would be “the thin end of the wedge” or a start on a “slippery slope” towards the outlawing of gun ownership completely. Presumably in the same way that the sensible and reasonable requirement by the government that people cannot drive without getting driving licences and that outlaw certain types of vehicles from being driven on public roads has led inevitably to the complete banning of car ownership in the America…
But regardless, it has at least ignited a debate on symbols of the past such as the Confederate flag, or the fact the street the church is located on is named after George Calhoun, a leading defender of Slavery, and is a block away from a statue of him, and a memorial to Confederate War dead. And this is a debate we should pay attention to. Because this isn’t something unique to the Southern States of America, or even America itself. Across the world street names and statues can be found that can induce a double-take, or of selective memories when it comes to the actions of historical men and women now regarded as heroes or inspirations. To take one example, I’ve always wondered why such pride of place is given outside the Houses of Parliament in England to Oliver Cromwell, a man who seemed to have very little issue with slaughtering thousands of Scots and Irish, and then setting himself up as King in all but name, yet because of his success in winning the English Civil War for the Parliamentarian forces is regarded as a hero by many of those who wish for a stronger democracy and role for Parliament in the face of a strong executive.
Perhaps where these figures prove to be a united force for communities the benefits can be said to outweigh the dangers of misreading the past, but where it instead becomes a source of division, maybe we should be far more willing to give them up. After all, it is surely better to dream of the heroes of the present and the future and work towards making their achievements possible than longing for an unobtainable past.