In a week of monumental events signaling — and legally upholding — transformational change in America, my imagination was drawn to a 21-year-old man-child sitting in an isolated jail cell in Charleston, South Carolina. What must admitted mass murderer Dylann Roof be thinking, I wondered. He set out to tear apart, through one heinous and violent act, the moral fabric of this democratic republic established nearly 239 years ago. He is not the first to try — and fail — to do so, and he won't be the last.
What Roof missed — now that he's just another misguided, murderous idiot behind bars — was hearing the resounding echoes of social and economic triumph two United States Supreme Court rulings finally addressed in declarative fashion. What Roof missed was a president of the United States rising to oratorical heights in a speech meant to speed the healing process surrounding the pain, anger, and disillusionment Roof's act of racial intolerance created. He missed the inspiring words that celebrated the resiliency of our country in times of unspeakable tragedy. He missed "Amazing Grace."
In his incarcerated absence, Roof may have been unaware of the high court's solid majority vote upholding the legality of the Affordable Care Act. For millions of people in this country, including thousands in Tennessee, the fight to insure the poor, the elderly, and those on the borderline of a healthy existence will continue. They will have new paths toward being able to secure medical treatment for afflictions and diseases that otherwise would have sentenced them to lives of pain or unneccessarily premature death. Unfortunately, the SCOTUS decision on Obamacare by no means ends the political opposition to it, but it gives legal clarity to what is an earnest attempt to level the health-care playing field for the haves and have-nots.
The same antagonistic forces that have long opposed "Obamacare" have vowed to continue to seek a constitutional amendment overturning the court's ruling. Word to the wise: Barring more conservative appointments to the high court, an unlikely prospect, that ship has sailed.
Roof, in the personal "manifesto" that surfaced after his arrest, expressed his loathing for African Americans, Latinos, and Jews. Oddly, none of his hate-filled rants targeted gays or same-sex marriage. Not that Roof will be in a position to witness such unions, but that issue was also addressed by the Supreme Court last week, and the court struck down barriers against gay marriage instituted by state governments. The majority decision used the words "human dignity" — a number of times — to bolster its judicial opinion. The same phrase was often used by abolitionists in arguing against the evils of slavery.
While young Mr. Roof rots in prison awaiting his likely execution, he will find plenty of the kind of seething anger and racial and sexual intolerance he had hoped to ignite by sparking a race war. He will have plenty of time to ponder how his cowardly and pathetic actions served as a sad precursor to what became a magnificent week in American history.
I hope he will agonize about the hour he spent inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — a Judas in the House of the Lord. I hope the parishioners' words of prayer and forgiveness that he heard while plotting his mayhem will be seared in his memory for whatever time he has left on this earth.
Mr. Roof, you picked the wrong place, the wrong time, and the wrong people. You failed.
And as long as the United States remains strong enough to tolerate dissent and disagreement, as long as "we the people" are willing to listen to opposing opinions about the issues that divide us, as long as we recognize injustice and fight to right the wrongs that befall the least of us, then people like Dylann Roof will be forgotten footnotes in the great American story.
As a nation, we are a work in progress, an ongoing saga of success and failure, where perfection will never be achieved. But last week demonstrated we're still valiantly searching for it.