Hate crime or terrorism? Evil or insane? For all the practice we've had over the years, we still seem to have trouble characterizing or understanding mass killings.
Should we be surprised that a state that still flies the Confederate flag spawns a young man convinced of white supremacy?
Or that a nation that glamorizes and refuses to regulate guns is back again to grieving a bunch of innocent lives lost?
For all the head-shaking and hand-wringing over the attack that killed nine worshipers in a South Carolina church, can we really say we didn't see this coming? We can't even wrap up one mass murder trial before we have to begin preparing for the next one.
We learn nothing, it seems, from a mourning process that's become obscenely routine — and never seems to move past platitudes to real soul-searching.
We're stuck, for now, in a thicket of anger, pain and hopelessness.
It's horrifying to see a place of worship turned into a target, dotted with bullets and drenched in blood. And I find it painful to accept that someone so young could hate us so much.
According to what we know about the murder suspect, Dylann Roof didn't get along with his parents, wouldn't stay out of trouble and couldn't make it past ninth grade in two attempts.
Yet the 21-year-old knew enough about history to glorify the flags of African nations whose white supremacist reigns ended before he was born.
And he managed to choose a church that, for more than 200 years, has been an emblem of African Americans' journey from slavery to freedom.
Roof may not be part of some organized racist campaign, but he is a terrorist — just as certainly as the Tsarnaev brothers were when they attacked the Boston Marathon.
This time the enemy is an American creation: Southern-bred and armed with a gun we made easy to get and an ideology we can't seem to shake.
At the same time Wednesday night that Roof was spraying bullets across the Bible study class, I was watching a series of more ordinary shootings recreated on the big screen, at a Los Angeles Film Festival screening of HBO's "Requiem for the Dead: American Spring 2014."
The documentary about gun violence was created from "found footage": family photos, Facebook posts, 911 recordings, crime scene reports. It focuses on eight of the more than 8,000 people killed by guns in this country in just three months last year.
The movie isn't preachy or political, but its searing examples make plain the toll guns take. It isn't just the criminals or the crazies we should fear. It's the power guns have to turn a brief flash of anger or a careless gesture into a lifetime of regret.
We meet the Army veteran who kills himself and his wife because she asked for a divorce. We see a bride become a widow on her wedding night, as the drive home takes the couple into the path of a gang shootout. We feel the pain of an elderly man whose gun discharges unexpectedly, sending a bullet through the bedroom wall and killing his wife of 50 years. We hear the anguished cries of an 11-year-old who accidentally shot his best friend to death while showing off his father's gun, which had been stored under the bed, unlocked.
The message of the film is more about gun safety than gun control.
That's becoming the default campaign in a country too afraid of resistance by gun owners and sellers to tackle the need to reduce the number of weapons and regulate who owns them.
At a panel discussion after the film, we talked about high-tech guns with trigger controls, gun-lock giveaways and social pressure that would make careless handling of weapons as unacceptable as driving drunk.
I left there thinking that might be good enough. Then I turned on my car radio and heard about the carnage in Charleston.
After every mass shooting, we say we've had enough, that this is when things change. But when the crying lets up and the speechmaking ends, our attention wanes.
I'd like to think this will be a turning point — but history won't let me.
If the slaughter of 20 first-graders didn't outrage us enough to win support for gun control, the murder of nine black people in church won't move the needle much.
I'm not suggesting that fewer guns would solve everything. This is about race, about hate, about weakness; about making excuses for your own shortcomings by blaming victims whose skin color is the only thing you see.
It's about the fear and ignorance that draws blowhards toward racist ideology — and the cowardice that keeps decent people from calling them on it.
Two things will stick with me from this painful episode:
The regret among some of Roof's friends, who now say they should have seen this coming. His segregation rants, racist jokes and threatening remarks. His boasts about starting a new civil war. For sure, he was a racist, one friend told reporters, "but I don't judge people."
The families and friends of those dead churchgoers don't judge people either. They showed up in court for Roof's bond hearing Friday, carrying loved ones' pictures and offering forgiveness to the man who ended their lives.
"We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms," said a woman who survived Roof's rampage but watched him kill her son.
"You have killed some of the most beautifulest people I know," she said, trying not to cry. "Every fiber in my body hurts and I will never be the same.
"But may God have mercy on you."