I can't remember how Ben phrased the question, but he had read Dylann Roof's writings, which struck him as pretty much the same scattered paranoia as all these other mass shooters. He wondered if mental illness pretty much had to be part of such a person these days. I had not thought about it in quite that way, but it only took a little while to decide that that yes, it must. Context matters.
In 1915 Dylann Roof could have found at least a few other people willing to shoot up a black church. Even then, it would have taken some context of recent incidents that were getting the local populace worked up - but you likely could get some people worked up pretty quickly over small or untrue things. Going further, in a time of open black-white conflict, as happened several times in Caribbean nations, he could likely have found a lot of people to shoot up a church. It would be less crazy to do that. It might be just as evil; some of the participants might be ill; but insanity would not be required. There would be an element of some cultural support in the 1915 case, and a fair bit in the Caribbean case.
These days you pretty much have to be ill to be a mass shooter in America. You can't be a mere "hothead" or "loner."
One doesn't have to get lost in a relativity maze where no idea can be considered crazy outside its context, as an excuse to indict "society," for its refusal to recognise creativity or genius. That rubber band can be stretched too far. (Science fiction writers used to have a lot of fun with this.) But context does matter, because being that far off from your surroundings suggests that other things are broken. We are social beings, and take our explanatory and moral cues largely from our surroundings. Perhaps too largely. If you are going to believe something different from your peer group, you seek a new peer group. If you can't find one, that should tell you something. If it doesn't tell you something, your problems are deeper. It is possible to go back over the turf and legitimately decide "no, they are all mostly wrong, and I've got it right," but the sane person who reaches that conclusion knows she has a hard road ahead and will have to provide significant evidence to convince others.
This leads me to a surprising place. The one fact that was considered obvious about the Charleston shooting was that it was racist. His writings and statements could hardly be more clear that he believed his motives were racial. Yet on reflection I think that is much less true. This was not some standard racist person who was a little stranger than most, this was a mentally ill person whose illness expressed itself in racism. The difference is significant because it switches which is the dominant characteristic. (Yes, this is entirely quixotic of me, because the national narrative is in place now and unlikely to move much.)
I mean, Rhodesia? We all thought that was weird, but it should have hit us even harder than that. This was not a rubber band stretched too far, but an elastic that had snapped long ago. Remember, he was frustrated that he couldn't find people nearby who understood the problem and were willing to do something about it. He could only find them on obscure internet sites.
I don't want to flip this entirely. Dylann Roof did not conclude that emanations from Io or poisons in the asparagus were creating the problems of the world. He picked a set of ideas that actually is present in some small percentage of society around him, to run with and become his Universal Explanation for Why My Life Is Bad. Yet I don't think racism is the right emphasis.
So, good riddance to the Confederate Battle Flag, though it had come to symbolise yahooness more than oppression. Yet I wish it had come down for better reasons, rather than as an innocent bystander seized and blamed for being present and unpopular near a tragedy. The focus on the flag allowed us to miss the point.