Because the recent shootings at the Peachtree Mall in Columbus, Georgia haven’t been blamed on Muslims, they’ve never been described in the press as acts of “terror,” in fact, they haven’t received much national attention at all.
But they have stimulated a good deal of frightened commentary in the affected region, much of it depressingly familiar. One online poster blamed the violence on “Obama’s sons”; others made snarky comments about the Black Lives Matter movement. Apart from overt racism, however, the theme running through most of the comments was a kind of lament: that this Southern city, people say, just isn’t as safe as it used to be. All of which makes me want to ask—safe for whom? I have a personal stake in the question, because, as it happens, Columbus, Georgia was my birthplace. And I’m well aware that Columbus has not been safe for a lot of people, including, to some extent, me and my family for a long time. Columbus, Georgia was founded in 1828, on a bluff overlooking the Chattahoochee River and the Alabama state line. Creek Indians had long lived on the river’s other shore, supposedly protected by federal treaty—but just 8 years after the founding they were brutally driven off their land, never to return. Christopher Columbus had contributed to the dispossession of Native Americans in his day, and the inhabitants of the new city named in his honor intended to follow his example.
Nor were Indians their only victims. By the outbreak of the American Civil War, Columbus was a bastion of black slavery, a textile and industrial center whose thriving economy rested squarely on the backs of chattel laborers. There is a historical marker in Columbus identifying the site of the “Last Land Battle in the War from 1861 to 1865.” The marker doesn’t mention that the white people of Columbus fought to keep human beings in chains—nor that one casualty of the battle, Colonel Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar, actually owned the last slave ship in the United States.
When I was born in Columbus in 1958, the passage of nearly a century had not erased the city’s racial fault lines. During the first year of my life (long before I even knew the meaning of the word), I too was drawn into the vortex of racism when the minister of Columbus’ First Presbyterian Church, Robert Blakely McNeill, lost his congregation by writing a few mild words in favor of “creative contact” between blacks and whites. My father published a magazine article about the minister; as a result, he too felt the effects of the South’s guilty rage. Barely sixteen months old, I was hastily removed with my parents to a neighboring state, where my brother Rob was born soon afterward. His full name is Robert Blakely Lesher—my family’s tribute to the clergyman who, with his candor, had exposed Columbus’s running sore of injustice for what it was.
Just as racial segregation wasn’t talked about publicly in Columbus in 1958, current news reports generally ignored the fact that the city’s largest single employer is Fort Benning, which houses the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). For decades, many of the worst U.S.-backed terrorists and torturers who have ravaged Latin America in the interest of Washington learned all the tricks of their trade outside Columbus. So nowadays, when I read about a series of shootings at Columbus’s largest shopping mall, and pick up the rank scent of racism from the on-line comments, I can’t help thinking to myself—despite the ugly reality of the crimes the soreheads are so incensed about—that they’re damned lucky if only now they feel the need to grumble about being unsafe in Columbus.
If they were Native Americans, if they were black, if they’d had the misfortune to live in Nicaragua or Guatemala or El Salvador, or if they were white but had written something that ran against the grain of popular white prejudice…or even if their name was Lesher and a family member had publicized the wrong facts in the wrong magazine—if, in short, they’d been anything but members of a privileged caste, these critics would have known long before now that Columbus can be a dangerous place.
Maybe even now they don’t realize that their freedom to insult millions of Americans as potential criminals, merely because of the color of their hated skin, is a product of privilege—that if they were Muslims, let’s say, making similar generalizations about Jews or Christians, they’d be risking social ostracism, official surveillance or worse. But as someone born in Columbus, in a hospital my mother could not have entered had she been black, and as someone hustled out of Columbus under threat just over a year later, I know a little bit about the history of American violence that most of America still prefers not to know.
Why do I repeat it now? Because in a society where racism and neo- liberalism are fashioning increasingly desperate environments for more and more working people, ignorance is too costly a luxury.
If violence is really on the rise in my birthplace, we ought to know why. And the “why” we must explore isn’t about what Washington calls “terror.” It has much more to do with the hells our elites are constructing, one by one, in American cities, in our dependencies around the globe, in the countries we bomb for the exploitation of their resources.
That’s the real terror we face. And the sooner we face it, the better.