Charleston, Taxi Driver and the Modern Condition

taxi driver image

by Shaun Scott

The mass murderer with a gun and a grudge became a media fixture after the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. Over time, the initial shock of that cautionary tale wore off because we saw it reenacted. We were allowed to cope with trauma in the most tragic way possible—by seeing it repeated: at Virginia Tech University, in a movie theatre near Chicago, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rather than move us to action, the spectacle of galling violence and the subsequent political fallout (and lack thereof) became normalized. The nightly news invited us to count our blessings as a society of individuals who, by and large, have never experienced anything so awful as being gunned-down in a place of worship.

In the United States of America, aggregated tragedy has a way of becoming its own genre. The specific form of violence authored by perpetrators like Dylann Roof is endemic to this era of American life, and we’ve taken its foundations for granted.

With the memory of the Republican Revolution still fresh in their minds, Americans were stunned when would-be assassin John Hinkley took aim at President Ronald Reagan in 1981. It turns out he was motivated by impressing Jodi Foster after falling in love with her performance in the film Taxi Driver. Directed in 1976 by Martin Scorsese, that classic character study features an alienated assassin named Travis Bickle who attempts shooting a presidential candidate to free the country from the threat of liberalism. Watching Taxi Driver again in the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Charleston, the similarities between Bickle’s vehement voice-overs and the avowed statements of manifestos by both Dylan Klebold and Dylann Roof are almost too much to face without turning away. It seems there’s been an uninterrupted continuum of politicized resentment since the 1970s, when profound structural changes to the American status quo disoriented a “silent majority” who responded with a resurgent platform based on “taking the country back.”

If only Travis Bickle’s rage weren’t real. As St. Louis-based citizen journalist Sarah Kendzior has noted, there’s very little Dylann Roof has to say about race relations that isn’t repeated thousands of times every day on Twitter. Just as a disease in the body may have bacterial foundations, social pathology is encouraged by culture: Dylann Roof was enabled by parents who bought him a gun. His circle of friends excused his racism. And the organization that played a critical role in his turn to virulent racism—The Council of Conservative Citizens, whose alliterative allusion to the Ku Klux Klan is doubtlessly deliberate—is a top donor to conservative political candidates. Dylann Roof couldn’t have been more steeped in the mainstream politics of racial grievance if he rode shotgun in Travis’ taxi back in the 70s.

At this point, a pressing question confronts sincere conservatives: given the Charleston massacre, Sarah Palin’s enabling role in the Tucson shooting of 2011, and the deeply anti-government worldview of Timothy McVeigh, how—pray tell—is a vote for a conservative candidate not in fact a vote for the continued specter of radical, often as not racially-motivated violence? In a neutral context, one degree of separation from crime does not make a community criminal. African-Americans and Muslims rightly recoil when the derelict actions of individuals are taken to be representative of the whole. But while race and religion can make poor categories for generalizing complex social wholes, we can measure how deeply a set of ideas has permeated the American character, and draw short lines from expressed ideology to their real-world outcomes. In other words, our context isn’t neutral:

For 35 years, Americans who attempt drawing links between racism, sexism, economic justice, and violence in all its forms—domestic, environmental and gun-caused—have been on the defensive. Self-imposed constraints of moral relativism and political-correctness didn’t allow us to distinguish between right and wrong in ways that stirred an electorate that understands issues in precisely these terms. Rhetorically, we were no match for the forcefully expressed worldview of conservatives who spun a compelling narrative that linked American socioeconomic decline, the politics of racial revenge, and the need for steroidal strength in the country’s armed forces. The re-militarization of American culture by conservatives in the decade following The Vietnam War was deeply rooted in a widespread reimagining of notions of national “strength” and “freedom.”

The practical realization of this political doctrine translated into fetishism of the 2nd amendment, and the return of (frequently coded) anti-Black sentiments that were forced to go underground in the Civil Rights Era. As massively influential conservative strategist Lee Atwater admitted in 1981 when he thought he was speaking off the record, “you can’t say nigger: that hurts you. So you say stuff like ‘state’s rights,’ and a byproduct of that is that blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Those ideological roots have born strange fruits that haven’t fallen too far from the tree. From where I sit, it seems that everything about the Charleston Shooting accurately reflects the current state of the union, as half the American electorate would have it.

In 2015, a large faction in the United States of America is proving that the only thing more dangerous than an idea whose time has come is an idea whose time has passed. It’s important to say that Dylan Roof isn’t a “worst case scenario,” but a not-at-all remote consequence of modern conservatism.

In film as in life, the best tragedies are meticulously staged.

Shaun Scott is a Seattle-based filmmaker and author whose work about race and popular culture has appeared in The Monarch Review and City Arts Magazine. Look for his forthcoming book Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1984-present in the fall of 2016.

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