| The Charleston magistrate who sparked a debate about who is a victim
The Washington Post James Gosnell won’t preside over Dylann Roof’s trial. So why are his comments stirring controversy?
“Charleston County Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr. opened the largely symbolic session with an unusual plea. “We have victims, nine of them. But we also have victims on the other side,” Gosnell said of the Wednesday church shooting. “There are victims on this young man’s side of the family. No one would have ever thrown them into the whirlwind of events that they have been thrown into.”
Ok Judge Gosnell, let’s assume that you were making an ideological point about the need for compassion in moments of horrific violence that exceed any social or cultural norms; the sort of violence that cannot under any circumstances be excused or justified. Let’s assume that you are not the same man who, in a 2003 court case over which you presided, told an African-American man “There are four kinds of people in this world — black people, white people, rednecks and n—–s,”
Let’s further assume that the defenders of Gosnell in the comments section of the Post article share this compassionate conviction that acts of violence do not simply harm those against whom the acts are committed, but also those who commit the acts as well as the societies in which those acts occur.
I’ll be honest; I share this view of violence (I blame it on the Galtung) because when violence is perpetrated we all – those who commit the violence, those who experience the violence and those who witness the violence – suffer an erosion of our individual and collective potential as happy, secure and functional human beings.
But what concerns me about Judge Gosnell, and others of his ilk, is that their charity and compassion is situational. When reading the comments in the Post, there were strident defenders of Gosnell who bemoan the “PC police” that purportedly nit-picking over such statements in an effort to create animosities when Gosnell, and others like him, are just trying to espouse charitable and compassionate views, but fail to do so artfully sometimes. Of course, neither Gosnell nor his defenders would ever utter such compassionate words about the families of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Nidal Hasan or Ismaaiyl Brinsley, but that is a conversation about white privilege for a different day. What is at the heart of the matter in Gosnell’s defense is that intentionality matters when determining whether or not violence has occurred.
When exploring the myriad ways in which we define, express and enact our notions of peace and violence (Sorry, just wrapped up my upper-division seminar on peace, violence and culture so this is somewhat forefront in my thinking), the issue of intentionality comes into focus with a case like this. Some will say that if Gosnell had no intention to harm through his statement, then he is not culpable for the violence enacted through his words (and yes, we are using a more expansive definition of violence that exceeds simple direct physical manifestations of violence and includes both structural and cultural violence). Here we need to consider, as many people in South Carolina have argued over the past few days and supported by others throughout the country, what is in an individual’s heart. Was Gosnell attempting to be universally compassionate or was he expressing a deeper-seated view of white privilege and black subservience?
If we adhere to a view that limits violence to only those instances where there is intentionality – I believe the lawyers refer to this as malice aforethought (i.e. premeditation), then we create a world that is sympathetic to and preferential of those who commit violence rather than those who suffer violence. The idea being that if a driver turns a corner, is blinded by the sun, and then hits and kills a small child riding a bike, then there is no violence at play because the driver did not intent to kill that child. Of course, this is a preferable system for the driver because, under the notion of “accidents will happen”, there is no culpability for the death of that child. This sort of logic is rooted within our legal code where it is highly unlikely, without some sort of additional, aggravating detail such as the driver was drunk or texting, that the driver would be charged. Had the driver been drunk or texting, then it is far more likely to result in formal charges due to the introduction of negligence into the mix; however, it should be pointed out that intentionality and negligence are not the same thing since the driver could be negligent but have no intention to commit violence, thereby absolving the driver.
Yet the bigger issue here is the child lying dead on the road next to their bike; all of this talk of intentionality fails to consider or serve that child. Such a conceptualization of violence is comforting for the perpetrator and callous towards the victim because, despite any consideration of intentionality, the victim experiences harm. A more compassionate understanding of violence recognizes that both agent and subject experience harm but that there is a scaling that must be applied since not all violence is created equal. In our example of the driver hitting the child, the child clearly experiences direct bodily harm that destroys his or her ability to achieve their full human potential (e.g. continuation of their life). The driver also experiences violence in that they must now continue their life with the burden of having taken a life. Even in the example of the Mother Emmanuel massacre, the perpetrator – Dylann Roof – must live with the burden of having murdered nine people in cold blood even if outwardly he manifests no recognizable signs that he regrets his action.
Further, and this is the point that Judge Gosnell attempts to make, the family of Dylann Roof also experiences violence and suffers harm from the actions even though the family lacks any intentionality in Dylann Roof’s actions. But even if we can get to a point where we recognize that one act of violence produces numerous individuals and communities that experience harm; it is not only inappropriate but immoral to suggest that there isn’t a hierarchy of harm at play here. The harm and suffering experienced by the nine victims at Mother Emmanuel is of such a different magnitude to the harm and suffering experienced by Dylann Roof and his family that it almost makes such a comparison seem insensitive and idiotic.
But this is where Gosnell and others like him fall into a trap of their own making. On the one hand, Gosnell and others are arguing that there are multiple people who suffer harm due to a particular set of circumstances. So, for instance, Roof’s family is a victim of the Mother Emmanuel massacre committed by Dylann Roof and, to continue this logic, so too is Dylann Roof himself. On the other hand, Gosnell and others are suggesting that one of the elements critical in defining Roof’s family as victims is that they never intended to enter the public and media vortexes that engulfed them. Similarly, defenders of Gosnell argue that the judge had no intention of harming people with his words and, therefore, no harm can be attributed to the judge. The logical incongruence embedded within this argument is that the existence of multiple victims due to a particular act is impossible unless the perpetrator intended to harm each of the victims through their action. To break it down a bit more clearly: according to the argument, Dylann Roof’s family cannot be victims unless Dylann Roof intended to harm his family. So when the Judge says that the family is a victim, he is implying that Dylann Roof intended to harm them; an argument that has absolutely no basis in fact.
The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.
Responsibility doesn’t care much about intention; it cares about the product of the action regardless of justifications. In our example of the driver killing a child as they rode their bike, perhaps we can discuss the intentionality of the driver and determine that there was no malice aforethought. Accidents can, do and will happen and the very thing that makes an accident an accident is the lack of intention. But just because an action lacks intention does not mean that the perpetrator lacks responsibility. The driver of the car is still responsible for the child’s death, regardless of whether the driver intended to harm the child. The family of Dylann Roof is still responsible for raising a young adult that dropped out of school in 9th grade and gorged himself on the sort of racist bile that resulted in the death of nine innocent men and women. And Judge Gosnell is still responsible for the hurt he caused both in 2003 and in 2015.
Perhaps intentionality can be used to soothe Judge Gosnell’s and the Roof family’s souls and make it easier for them to look themselves in the mirror or to sleep at night, but this, under no circumstances, absolves them of their responsibility in the harm and suffering others.