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. South Carolina is also one of the only states not to have a hate crime law on the books.
Given the history of the South, along the rise of both active shooters and gun access, we can’t call what happened Wednesday night a “senseless tragedy.” In fact, the Charleston church shooting is full of savage sense. Thanks to complicity at best, and outright racist at worst, the “inconceivable” is still feasible. The fear tactics that were once localized in the dark backwoods of our political landscape now reach every phone and laptop. Today, xenophobia and bigotry are the daily platforms from which many conservatives speak to their shrinking base. The Charleston shooting is not a random act of violence, but part of a long litany of history culminating in a painful present.
Aurin Squire is a freelance journalist who lives in New York City. In addition to being a playwriting fellow at The Juilliard School, he has writing commissions and residencies at the Dramatists Guild of America, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, and National Black Theatre.