We live in an age where mass shootings are so common that there is now a template for politicians to plug in the victim’s names, the date and location of the massacre, and synonyms for words like “tragedy” and “horror.” In the last 36 hours, we've heard ersatz condolences filled with hollow words, anodyne phrases about "unimaginable" horrors.
But the Charleston church shooting that left nine African-Americans dead while they prayed is not an inexplicable tragedy. It simply took white rage and racism and conservative political race-baiting to their logical conclusions. It echoes a disturbing trend in right-wing media inflaming fringe factions, encouraging maximum armament, and then turning around after a tragedy and saying “we had no idea this would happen.”
On Wednesday night, South Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley trotted out a boilerplate statement, calling the shooting a “senseless tragedy.” One could excuse this choice of words as a rushed assumption issued in real time, but as more and more details about Dylann Roof surfaced, conservatives refused to face the music. One by one, politicians and pundits acted like this terrorist act was one of life’s great unsolvable mysteries.
“We don't know the motivation of the person who did it," Rudy Guiliani said yesterday. "Maybe he hates Christian churches. Maybe he hates black churches or he's gonna go find another one. Who knows." Donald Trump, in a tweet yesterday, said the crime was “incomprehensible.”
Last night, a Wall Street Journal columnist wrote: "What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity. It is no small solace that in committing such an act today, he stands alone."
At this point, Roof’s bigotry has become clear in myriad ways. Yet as late as this afternoon, when cornered by a reporter and asked if the shooting was racially motivated, presidential candidate Jeb Bush said “I don’t know.” This means Bush is either incapable of basic logic, or he has willfully decided to blind and deafen himself to one of the nation’s biggest problems.
After all we’ve found out about Dylann Roof, how can we still say we “don’t know” why this happened?
The survivors from inside the church claimed Roof said African Americans “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.” His statements are deranged fiction, but they don’t live in isolation. They exist not only on a historical continuum of racially motivated violence, but within a current narrative of white people “losing the country” and the reactive violence of rural militias and domestic terrorists. Republican governors’ complicity in fostering a dangerous cocktail of political bigotry and easy-access guns has never been clearer than after this latest mass shooting. While it is true that bigots and violent people will always exist, a persistently racist culture nurtures small-minded hatred, and politicians provide them with tools to realize it.
It is no secret that one of the baubles of the conservative movement is the Confederate flag, which appeared on Roof’s license plate. It is a symbol of white supremacy and slavery, and it is also a symbol that is a part of South Carolina's official government as the flag flies in the capital. When questioned about her state’s continued support for it, Governor Haley shrugged it off.
South Carolina hasn't exactly left its racist history behind. Haley has consistently sided with more guns, fewer voting rights, and fostering a conservative culture of fear and suspicion. Last year, she signed a new and even more expansive bill for concealed weapons and easier access to guns in her state. She was applauded by the NRA for this bill. In an age where abortion clinics are bombed, elementary school children are gunned down on a cyclical basis, and lone gunmen have unlimited access to machine guns, the idea of expanding gun rights seems inconceivable, especially in a state where a gun-related death happens every 14 hours.
Meanwhile, South Carolina was one of the first to add more restrictions on voting after the Supreme Court cut away at the Voting Rights Act and Republicans continue to pursue new voting rights restrictions aimed at black and Latino citizens.
Let me repeat one sentence from that: It echoes a disturbing trend in right-wing media inflaming fringe factions, encouraging maximum armament, and then turning around after a tragedy and saying “we had no idea this would happen.”
Right-wing politicians push irrational fear - and absolute hysterics about our first black president - while also encouraging gun ownership and use. The gullible become even more fearful and more filled with hate, while also seeing "2nd Amendment remedies" as the solution to every problem.
But when angry loons actually act in the direction they've been pushed, then conservatives are astonished. How could anyone have predicted this? It certainly can't be racism, because racism no longer exists (except for the discrimination white men face, of course).
Here's what Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal said:
The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal on Friday suggested that "institutionalized racism" was not a driving force in the massacre of nine people Wednesday night at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina because it "no longer exists."
Fox 'News' actually pushed the idea that this was an attack on Christianity! Well, it can't be racism, right? Racism is just what that evil Kenyan in the White House fosters among the thugs he leads, in his attempt to take our country away from us real Americans.
Meanwhile, South Carolina still flies the Confederate flag - a symbol of racism, slavery, and treason - over the state capitol. Statues of Confederate leaders are proudly displayed in the state. Street names are named after racists and slave-owners.
Of course, to other white people like him, Roof was just "a conservative with a lot of 'Southern pride.'" Sure, he made a lot of racist jokes, but that's considered normal in South Carolina (in Nebraska, too).
Of course he was angry. What right-winger isn't angry? After all, 'those people' are taking over our country, right? And don't get me started about those damned Mexicans. As Donald Trump says, they're all drug dealers and rapists, with Mexico determined to send us all of their worst. (OK, there might be a few good people mixed in with the rapists. It's possible, at least, Trump magnanimously concedes.)
And what do you do with an angry white conservative? You give him guns, of course. After all, what if Barack Obama plans to invade South Carolina after the military finishes with Texas?
But right-wing politicians and pundits are just astonished when these things happen. Well, no one could have predicted violence, right? Hysterical anger, racism pushed for political gain (the GOP's 'Southern strategy' is alive and well), and deadly firearms easily available everywhere certainly can't be blamed for any violence that results. Who could even imagine such a thing?
And racism no longer exists in America - except when our racist president and the brown rapists Mexico keeps sending across our border discriminate against white men, of course - so it can't be that.
On the other hand, we know we have a war on Christmas and a war on Christianity in America, right? Poor Christians, only 71% of the population, are bullied and discriminated against by the 3% of Americans who are atheists (not to mention the .9% who are Muslim). Well, as Jesus said, the well-armed will inherit the Earth. And if you're struck on one cheek, bust a cap in their ass.
Right-wingers won't recognize race-based attacks because they don't want to. They won't recognize the problems inflammatory, racist rhetoric and an abundance of guns pose because they don't want to. Right-wing politicians certainly won't recognize the part they've played in this and other attacks because they don't want to.
And since they're faith-based, rather than evidence-based - and, more to the point, so are their supporters - they don't have to. Reality doesn't matter to any of them, because they all live in the right-wing fantasy world of their choice.
PS. There has been plenty of good commentary about this incident. Here's Jon Stewart, for example. And here's Larry Wilmore. Watch them. Seriously.