The crime was horrific. Nine people were gunned down in a church in North Charleston, South Carolina during Bible study. The perpetrator, identified as a young man with a purported history of drug abuse involving opioids, joined the group for an hour before pulling out his weapon and firing it.
It seems like such a senseless crime on the surface. But as someone who's worked with adult psychiatric patients and disturbed youth in state custody, I've seen enough to know that people always have a trigger for murder. The man who killed his mother thought he had a good plan to shut her up once and for all, to get her off his back. The teenage stalker who fantasized about his female victims and potential victims suffering at his hands thought he should be in charge of the universe. To him, life was a virtual reality game and people were pieces on the game board, to be manipulated. There's always some kind of trigger that motivates a criminal to act.
When I first saw the news stories on the horrific murders, I was stunned. Of all the people to kill in an event labeled as a hate crime, why these people? The more I learned about the victims, the more I understood how they came to be the targets. These were not randomly selected. They were deliberately chosen. But why?
The answer became even more obvious to me as I listened to the families of the victims speak at the initial hearing for the suspect. Myra Thompson's grandson, Anthony, told suspect Dylann Roof, "I forgive you, my family forgives you." With the pain, the suffering, the sorrow still so raw, a family was willing to forgive? The Thompson family was not alone in doing so. Ethel Lance's daughter also offered her forgiveness. But it was Felecia Sanders who broke my heart when she said: "We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms....You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know."
That was it in a nutshell. The suspect killed some of the "most beautifulest people". These people weren't angry, vengeful, or ostracizing. They welcomed this young man into their church. They invited him to join them for prayer, for lessons on how to live as a better human being. These people were all about changing the world, making it better for everyone, uniting us with love, with hope, with faith. The pastor, Clementa Pinckney, was a state senator in South Carolina, a man used to working with people of different faiths, different races, different backgrounds. By all accounts, he sought to find common ground on which we could all stand together and recognize what is good in us. Three other reverends were in that Bible study at the time, along with a fresh-faced college graduate who was about to make his mark on the world, and some ladies you just know would have been kind to you in your time of need. They all had one thing in common. They believed in a higher power greater than any human, a force that could transform the heart, and more importantly, the soul.
As an author, I study character all the time, trying to bring realism to my stories, seeking answers to why people do what they do. What motivates them to be so cruel, so vicious to one another? This crime struck me like no other. In selecting these victims, the suspect wasn't really going after their race. He wasn't making some kind of grand gesture to prove his superiority as a white boy. No. He picked them for their goodness, for their kindness, for their decency. This was the quintessential battle of evil versus good.
In a world where it is so easy to assume that skin color or ethnicity is the revealer of a person's worth, it's what lives inside of us that really matters. When we choose to live in darkness, we know chaos. When we choose to live in light, we understand we are connected to one another. We are known by our actions more than our words. The nine victims of the massacre at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were pillars of their community. They were making a difference. They were the epitome of love. That's really why, in my view, they were murdered. Their faith lifted them up, above the mundane ordinary problems of everyday life, above their own troubles, to a place where they could see God's hand at work. They believed. The suspect didn't.
What went through his mind as he sat through that Bible study? Was he excited, thinking he would soon triumph, that these wonderful souls, "the most beautifulest people" would soon be lying in a blood bath? We may never know. This tragedy seems to make no sense, and yet, to the killer, I think it made perfect sense. He wanted the superficial glory, the vestiges of respect for having destroyed human beings determined to lift up mankind. He wanted the power he saw them as having. They had their faith, their God, and by killing them, he would reign supreme. This wasn't about the color of skin. It was about the power of the Almighty. It was about believing in goodness instead of darkness. It was about coming together instead of coming apart. But this young killer was coming apart. He was clearly unraveling.
As an author, I know I will never write about these real people in a fictional story. Their pain is all too real. Their families will forever know the sorrow of this terrible loss. But I will remember the killer. When I write another mystery, he will come along with me on the journey. I will probe his dark soul in search of answers. Why? Why would you kill such wonderful people?
It's easy to make up stories, to thrill and delight readers, to amuse. But behind all the work that goes into crafting a tale, there is always someone's heartache. There is always a victim, just as there is always a predator. The difference between real life and fiction is that authors sometimes get the chance to insert heroes into the stories and save lives. Just as we love our characters, we know our villains want to harm them. You'll often see Scarlet Wilson, Gabby Grimm, and even Sydney Stansfield Hartman fight tooth and nail to do what's right. In real life, that's not always possible. Hence, the world now mourns the loss of some wonderful people. And in the end, it boils down to one thing. Do we believe ourselves to be a power greater than that faith? The killer believed he would triumph by slaying nine wonderful people. He would find glory in taking their lives from them, stealing their power. In the end, he made a lot of people sad, but he didn't destroy the one thing he most wanted to call his own, the power of faith. Life will go on, even after this tragedy. People will still believe. We will come together. We owe that to the martyrs who were struck down for believing there is more to life than humanity. I still believe.