As Peter Isackson explains, the comparison between Dylann Roof and Othello is clear.
Interpreting literary tragedy has never been an easy task. At school, we learn about the critical emotions an audience is meant to feel: pity and fear, terms Aristotle so kindly provided to successive generations of teachers and students attempting to make sense of this literary genre. For those raised and weaned on modern media, tragedy challenges our normal values. We expect the good to prosper and the bad to be punished.
Tragedy, on the other hand, offers us the spectacle of the death of noble people, characters with whom we are expected to sympathize. Rationally accounting for the events that culminate in multiple corpses scattered about the stage in its final act has always been an enterprise fraught with difficulty.
In the interest of making Shakespeare palatable to young readers who probably find his English a foreign language, high school teachers have traditionally simplified things in the search for a causal explanation by listing and reciting the well-known heroes’ tragic flaws. Once again, we have Aristotle to thank for that convenient concept. So, we learn that Hamlet was indecisive, Othello jealous, Macbeth ambitious. And Lear, besides being a senile father, that’s one we can leave for your English Literature classes in college.
Interpreting “tragedy in the news” is another kettle of fish. It’s been over a week since the media began grappling with the massacre at a church in Charleston, and the exegesis has predictably not advanced very far. We have had a few comic moments, largely provided by Fox News, quick on the trigger to instill the idea that it was an attack on Christians. The entire Fox “news” organization was clearly embarrassed by yet another example of a white man killing unarmed blacks.
But by the following Monday, everyone—including Fox News—had come to admit that it was an act not only of racism, but also terrorism, an activity which most of the media associates exclusively with Muslims. Bill O’Reilly himself proudly announced: “This is not a tragedy. This is an execution designed to terrorize people.” Only FBI Director James Comey held out in his dissent, refusing to call it terrorism.
One thing is clear: This type of event causes everyone to struggle consciously or unconsciously with its eventual underlying meaning and, more particularly, the eventual impact of any interpretation on the agenda they defend or represent.
The commentary began on the day of the incident, when US President Barack Obama came forward to denounce the crime, employing the expected epithet “senseless,” which lends itself to several interpretations: unjustified, motiveless and incomprehensible. But senseless also suggests crazy, opening the door to the theory of the insane lone wolf. Before anything could be concluded about the culprit’s personality or motives, the president used the opportunity to express his own exasperation with the effects of a gun culture he was powerless to influence.
This predictably became the key talking point, one that accompanies every incident of this type, even as facts about Dylann Storm Roof’s personality and biography began to emerge, which turned the conversation in a different direction. Thanks to his well-documented identification with the culture of the Confederacy, the Confederate Battle Flag became the new focus of attention for the media. It is impossible to control guns in America, but it might just be possible to control flags.
With the arrest of Roof and new information about his secessionist ideology, Fox News began redefining the narrative of the murderer and his motives, in order to diminish the obvious importance of the racial issue. O’Reilly and cohorts ended up claiming with the certainty of announcing a mathematical axiom that the United States was not a racist country. A key to proving that was to put forth the notion that Roof, who was clearly not legally insane, should be understood as the incarnation of evil. So evil, in fact, that run-of-the-mill racists who would never think of killing African Americans in a church would disown him as the devil incarnate.
If we understand Dylann Roof as someone who is existentially evil, a tainted individual, the causes with which he identified—white supremacy and nostalgia for the Confederacy—could be shielded from the attempt of liberals to impugn them or hold them responsible, directly or indirectly, for this crime.
Charleston’s mayor called the massacre itself an act of “pure, pure concentrated evil.” Not just pure, but “doubly “pure” and of course concentrated, which suggests the idea of evil compressed within a single individual and thus isolated from the social environment. Terry Rule, an official of the Museum and Library of Confederate History, called Roof “evil and manipulative” as well as “hellish.”
In the meantime, O’Reilly set about building his and Fox News’ definitive game plan around the idea that Roof, though not insane, is evil, a self-motivated terrorist, an isolated case divorced from the reality of the society he lives in, which should be thought of as a colorblind culture that long ago renounced any form of racism.
Former Georgia Congressman Ben Jones of the Sons of Confederate Veterans stated this position with perfect clarity: “We must not allow the sickness of one demented individual to become that with which the media and our ‘politically correct’ opponents define us. We are the same good-hearted people that we were last week and last year.”
The message is that all good Americans—the vast majority—are united in deploring the heinous act of an obviously demented (but not insane) individual, and that any contention that racism is a general problem must be seen as irresponsible, if not delusional.
Thus the notion of “evil”—more recently and very consistently applied to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS)—has come to the rescue of those who are embarrassed by the steady stream of bad publicity around white misbehavior with African Americans. Evil has the great merit of setting certain individuals apart from society, identifying them as the other, giving them a special status that exonerates and distances the rest of society from their sins.
Shakespeare and Dylann Roof
This is where this author would like to invite Shakespeare to sneak out of his grave for a moment and assist us in understanding what happened at the Emanuel Church in Charleston. The obvious place to look is not in his political tragedies, such as Julius Caesar or even Hamlet (a slain king), but in Othello, and not because it is about race relations, but because it provides us with the clearest and best developed case of character that can be considered as purely evil.
Iago is as good as it gets where evil is concerned. This is certainly where we should start. But after checking with the Bard, the first surprise is the discovery that Dylann Roof actually has more in common with Othello than with Iago. No, not that he’s a younger male version of Rachel Dolezal, but that like Othello—a character incapable of evil intentions—the horror he produced was the result of his utterly mistaken conviction that he was administering justice, a justice he believed others would recognize and approve.
Samuel Coleridge, the great romantic poet, nearly simultaneously with the Russian poet Pushkin, spoke up to contradict the standard cliché about the character of Othello. Pushkin stated pithily: “Othello was not jealous by nature, he was trustful.” Coleridge elaborated: “Othello does not kill Desdemona in jealousy, but in a conviction forced upon him by the almost superhuman art of Iago, such a conviction as any man would and must have entertained who had believed Iago’s honesty as Othello did.”
What Coleridge doesn’t mention is that behind that conviction is the notion Othello—the foreigner—associates with white, European civilization. Injustice must be punished in the interest of civil society, without any form of favoritism because justice is blind. Call it “the rule of law.”
In a mood very similar to Dylann Roof’s at the prayer service, Othello enters the chamber of the sleeping Desdemona and tells himself:
“It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!
It is the cause.” (V,2, 1-3)
A few lines later, after kissing the woman he is about to execute, he declares,
“Ah balmy breath, that dost almost persuade
Justice to break her sword!”
The police revealed that Roof “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him.”
When, immediately after the death of Desdemona, Othello learns the litany of details concerning Iago’s treachery, which highlights the immense injustice of his own act, he once again slides into the role of minister of the law, this time against the new criminal, himself. Just before provoking his own death, he declares:
“And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.”
Teachers should spend a little more time on these final words of Othello, as significant in their loquacity as Hamlet’s succinct adieu, “the rest is silence.” Othello, the Moor, presumably born a Muslim, had dedicated his life as a soldier at the service of Venice to becoming a paragon of Christian Venetian society, identifying totally with its official values, including the presumed blindness of justice, the value of honesty and the sanctity of marriage. He was, as Pushkin remarked, trustful, to the point of believing everything so deviously fed to him by “honest Iago,” whom everyone in the play seems to trust. In the course of his developing dialogue with Iago, we see Othello “educated” by his mentor for the first time as Iago explains the actual failures of “honesty” in Venetian society, which include the loose sexual mores of Venetian men and women, a cliché that no Elizabethan audience would have missed.
It is only in the final scene that he realizes that what he took to be fair was foul and foul, fair (“honest” Iago turned out to be dishonest” and the “whore” Desdemona was, in spite of the “ocular proof,” chaste). And so one last time he returns to his culturally constructed role of minister of justice, sees himself as the violent miscreant who traduced the Venetian state and proceeds with his own execution, not out of the despair we associate with suicide, but from his higher sense of public justice. He renders a final service and a final proof of loyalty to the state. He lives and dies in the role of the ideal Venetian, not having understood how that society actually works.
Like Othello, Dylann Roof apparently didn’t want to kill his victims. Othello affirms, with the cold logic of justice, “Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men.” Roof declared: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” His was a mission.
The parallels with Othello end there. Dylann Roof is no tragic hero. Unlike Othello, he had no serious claim to being seen as a public servant. His life was that of a loser. And Othello himself, noble as he appears to be when not “perplexed in the extreme” by Iago, his “honest” friend and officer, was, by his own testimony, naïve and unskilled in the social arts.
But the comparison of Roof with Othello makes sense, and if, at the same time, we can easily detect the presence of evil in his act, where should we look for the equivalent of Iago in his story?
From the very first dialogue with the hapless and abject Roderigo, Shakespeare cues the audience to understand that Iago is existentially evil and not just a typical nasty villain seeking to even a score, redress an offense or realize some worldly ambition. Unlike Richard III or Macbeth, it is not power Iago is seeking because he has no imaginably legitimate claim to it.
Shakespeare drops a stronger clue when Iago says to his gull, Roderigo, “I am not what I am.” In the context, this is to reassure his amoral accomplice that, contrary to his public reputation, he is not “honest” (sincere) with others. At the same time, the reader may detect a deeper metaphysical statement. Iago is declaring himself the opposite of the Biblical God, Yahweh (“I am who I am”). In other words, Shakespeare has Iago present himself as an incarnation of the devil himself. This diabolical identity is confirmed by Othello himself in his final moments when he cries,
“Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil
Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body?”
The devil has always been portrayed as a good talker. It is Iago’s mastery of rhetoric and psychological manipulation, not only of Othello but also of Roderigo, that reveals what evil is in the play.
Iago and Dylann Roof?
Returning to the case of Dylann Roof, where can we look for the source the evil the pundits have been so careful to pin on the man himself? Where is the Iago of his story? Did Roof have a friend, accomplice or mentor who coached him, egged him on, led him to the fateful act?
For the moment, it doesn’t appear to be the case, which helps to comfort the “lone wolf” thesis. But Roof clearly claimed to be acting in the name of what he believed to be implacable justice, a justice he didn’t create, but drew from other sources. That is precisely what makes his case frightening and troubling in a way that Othello’s isn’t. Iago carefully orchestrated the situation designed to produce the “chaos” Othello feared would be the consequence of his broken love for Desdemona,
“But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.”
According to his friends, Dylann Roof believed in the necessity of provoking a race war. This was not a chaos created by an absence of order or of love, as Othello feared, but a chaos strategically provoked in order to reestablish a vanished order. Could any of Roof’s friends have been his Iago, even passively?
The fact that none appear to have tried to dissuade him from his “demented” thesis doesn’t incriminate them, but it does point us toward the Iago we are looking for. Rather than a particular manipulative individual, the Iago in this story is a collective entity. It is the culture of racism that Bill O’Reilly so adamantly denies.
Shakespeare simplified things in the extreme for the sake of the drama. He provided one unforgettable character purely committed to evil (a white European) and another character (an African honored for his martial prowess). Othello is the meritorious foreigner so committed to the idea of honesty and fairness that it was his very instinct for fairness that turned him the instrument of tragic injustice around which the play is built. His injustice was committed primarily against himself, in the name of the values he believed he had learned in his adopted white European civilization.
Every line of Othello is worth pausing over for what it reveals about the complexity of inter-racial relations, cultural contrasts, the question of identity, the nature of loyalty, the status of “honest” and sincere expression. Othello is much more than a drama of marital relations and jealousy.
Like Othello, Dylann Roof studied and learned what he believed was a new and more appropriate set of values—values he claims his family did not teach him. Like Othello, who imagined that “…she with Cassio hath the act of shame/ A thousand times committed,” Roof, having pored over the publications of the Council of Conservative Citizens’ website, was convinced that there were countless “brutal black on white murders,” murders that could only be avenged and future ones prevented by the elimination of the perpetrators. For Othello, on the other hand, there were only two to be eliminated—the imaginary adulterer Cassio and Desdemona. For Roof, it was an entire race.
Iago was finally exposed by his own wife, Emilia, an unwitting but all too pliable accomplice in the crime. Even she had no idea of Iago’s evil nature. Upon Iago’s insistence, Emilia stole the fatal handkerchief, the evidence Othello required to seal the verdict. Realizing the devious plot her husband had set in motion, she finally disobeys her husband. When he orders her to shut up, go home and mind her own business, she becomes the witness for the prosecution. Iago, true to his evil self, stabs and kills his own wife, but not before she has revealed all the key evidence against him. The play ends with Lodovico, the Venitian senator taking charge of the proceedings. He gives instructions to his brother, Gratiano, to provide “the time, the place, the torture” of “this hellish villain,” Iago.
The advantage of having a single culprit for a crime provoked by a perversion of values is that a specific punishment can be applied. Torture was of course acceptable in 17th century Europe. Although formally banished by the Constitution, it is ironic that recent US administrations have brought it back to be applied to the designated “forces of evil” in the Middle East. Dylann Roof will clearly not be tortured. The governor of South Carolina has already promised capital punishment, considered by most Americans as neither cruel, nor unusual. South Carolina thus proposes to supply, through the established legal system, the hand of Othello that will eliminate the convicted murderer.
As for Iago, in whatever form he exists as the principle of evil that guided Roof to his fateful act, he will of course remain free because largely invisible. And yet he is there, embedded in a culture that grew from slavery and apparently retains an authentic nostalgia for those good old days. And recent events in Ferguson, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Cleveland and elsewhere have showed us that our invisible Iago still knows how to make his presence felt. Certain pundits in the media are there to reassure us that, just as Iago was trusted by everyone and admired for his honesty, the evil that inspired and even “perplexed” Dylann Root can be trusted and believed. Yes, we are told, there will always be a few bad apples. But that just proves that apart from those rare exceptions, this is a country of “honest citizens,” free of evil.
We mustn’t forget Ben Jones’ words: “We are the same good-hearted people that we were last week and last year.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.