Nikki Haley, South Carolina’s Republican governor, made a curiously obtuse statement on Facebook in the aftermath of Wednesday's massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. "While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” the governor said.
A charitable reading of the remarks is that Haley was trying to express the idea that so horrific a crime defies fathoming. Yet her choice of the word “motivates” conveys the false idea that this type of mass murder cannot have an explicable intent. But in point of fact, attacks on houses of worship often have all too clear agendas: When Al Qaeda attacks churches in Iraq, no one would say that their motives were unclear. For that matter, the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and the 2012 shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, were two blatantly obvious cases of a place of worship being targeted for violence by racists.
It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Haley’s remarks were a pre-emptive attempt to deflect listeners from an uncomfortable possibility: that, like the killings in Birmingham and Oak Creek, the Charleston slaughter was a racist hate crime. In an America where conservative pundits and a Supreme Court judge assure us that racism is a thing of the past, news of so horrific a hate crime goes against politically convenient narratives.
In the immediate wake of the Charleston attack, it was known that those killed were black, that the church played a historically significant role in African-American history, and that the suspected shooter was white. Thursday, the suspect has been named and arrested. As facts emerge about the alleged killer Dylann Storm Roof, the likelihood of a racist motive have increased.
A friend of Roof’s told the Daily Beast that the alleged shooter “had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that.” A Facebook photo shows Roof wearing a jacket with patches displaying the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. “He apparently told people that he was involved in groups, racist groups,” a family member told the Wall Street Journal. Roof reportedly told one of the survivors of the shooting, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country."
Despite the accumulating evidence of Roof’s racial attitudes, there’s been a reluctance on the right to link his crime to racism, a gingerly approach to talking about the crime very much in keeping with Haley’s deliberately murky remarks. Republican public figures and conservative media figures have gone out of their way to deflect attention away from the possible racist motive and claim that what the massacre was really an attack on Christianity.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, currently running for the GOP presidential nomination, linked the church murder to his pet topic, the “assault” on religious liberty. "You talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before,” Santorum said. “It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation," he said.
On the Fox News show "Fox and Friends," host Steve Doocy expressed amazement that the church attack was being considered a “hate crime.”
On the same program, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also confessed to being baffled about possible motives. "We have no idea what's in his mind," he said. "Maybe he hates Christian churches. Maybe he hates black churches or he's gonna go find another one. Who knows."
South Carolina Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham questioned whether this was a “hate crime” and tried to suggest factors other than race were involved. “There are real people who are organized out there to kill people in religion and based on race, this guy’s just whacked out,” Graham said on the TV show "The View." "But it’s 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”
Are the motives of this crime really so mysterious, or are these conservatives simply trying to avoid a frank discussion about racism in America—in the naïve hope, perhaps, that ignoring the discussion will make it go away? They could learn a lesson or two from another presidential hopeful: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who tweeted: