Only One Presidential Candidate Spoke Truth About Charleston

June 20th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

As of Friday morning, Dylann Storm Roof, the suspect in the Charleston church shooting, was charged with nine counts of murder and the possession of a gun used in a violent crime, which, as the New York Times reports, are charges that could lead to the death penalty. But the conversation is far from over. Roof's actions Wednesday night in the historically black South Carolina church that left nine parishioners dead have opened up a semantic debate that activists and civil rights advocates say highlights an underlying resistance to address the severity of racial violence in the U.S., and implicitly reflects deeper issues surrounding race in American culture.

"We have been conditioned to accept that if the violence is committed by Muslim, then it is terrorism," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told the Times. "If the same violence is committed by a white supremacist or apartheid sympathizer and is not a Muslim, we start to look for excuses – he might be insane, maybe he was pushed to hard."

The debate over whether or not to call Wednesday's shooting an act of terrorism has swelled since the incident, as have criticisms of media and politicians tread lightly around Roof's racial motives.

In the political sphere, many 2016 presidential candidates have been accused of failing to come out and say what many see as an obvious dimension of the attack: that it was a racially-driven act of domestic terrorism.

Jeb Bush

On Friday, Jeb Bush was the latest candidate to draw the ire of observers on social media, after saying he was unsure what the motivations were for the killings. "I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes," he said at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference. In a follow-up interview with the Huffington Post, Bush was asked whether the shooting was racially motivated. "It was a horrific act and I don't know what the background of it is, but it was an act of hatred," he said.

A Post reporter asked the question again, to which Bush replied, "I don't know. Looks like to me it was, but we'll find out all the information. It's clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives, and they were African-American. You can judge what it is," he said.

On Twitter, observers were quick to criticize Bush's guarded answer.

Other candidates seemed hesitant to call the shooting explicitly racially motivated. Republican contender and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said on an AM radio show Thursday that the crime was one of hate, but that it was also part of a larger attack on religious liberties. "It's obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don't know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be?" he asked. "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. It's a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation."

Lindsey Graham

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also speculated Thursday that there "are real people who are organized out there to kill people in religion and based on race, this guy's just whacked out," he said. "But it's 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them." But on Friday, Mic notes, Graham clarified his view, saying that "the only reason these people are dead is because they're Black." Other Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Rand Paul (Ky.) were criticized for giving only passing, if any, remarks on the shooting during speeches at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference on Thursday, Newsweek reported.

Bernie Sanders

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders so far seems to be the only candidate to go beyond calling the shooting a hate and racially motivated incident. "What transpired ... last night was not just a tragedy, it was an act of terror," Sanders wrote in an email to supporters Thursday afternoon. "This hateful killing is a horrific reminder that, while we have made important progress in civil rights for all of our people, we are far from eradicating racism," he continued. The letter asked supporters to donate to the Emanuel AME church targeted in the attack.

Rick Perry

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that the shooting should not create a rush to enact further gun control. He also said that he thinks the shooting highlighted the need to deal with overuse of prescription drugs.

“These individuals have been medicated, and there may be a real issue in this country from the standpoint of these drugs and how they’re used," he told Newsmax TV. "The Veterans Administration for instance is handing out these opioids in massive amounts. And then people question well why can’t these young individuals get work, or why is the suicide rate so high.”

Hillary Clinton

Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton did not call the attack terrorism, but addressed the shooting at an event in Las Vegas Thursday, calling it a "horrific massacre." "We have to face hard truths about race, violence, guns and division," Clinton told the National Association of Latino Elected Leaders, or NALEO.

Clinton had visited Charleston one day before the shooting. "I left feeling not only great about Charleston, but great about America." When she arrived in Nevada, she said she learned about the murders. "The shock and pain of this crime of hate strikes deep."

Many have pointed to the lack of the word "terrorism" in descriptions of Wednesday's shootings, which are under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department as hate crimes, something activists say is a potential block to progress in the broader national discussion of racially motivated killings. "While the terrorist label is often applied to attacks, plots and conspiracies carried out on behalf of designated terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, politically motivated violence is not the sole domain of supporters of designated terrorist groups," Abraham H. Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement to the New York Times.

It also brings into question which acts should count as terrorism, and which shouldn't, recalling past attacks on American soil and previous debate over the terminology. For some, terrorism conjures the threat of external forces bent on persecuting broad categories of people––a stance reflected in international terrorist designations for certain Islamic extremist groups. But others were quick to point out that Wednesday's shooting both fits a dictionary definition of terrorism, and can be traced to the first iterations of anti-terrorism laws in the U.S., which protected against the Ku Klux Klan, the Times points out.

For civil rights groups, the historical context of Wednesday's attack was important to underscore in the aftermath. In a statement on the ADL website, Foxman and Mark Moskowitz, an ADL regional director, wrote that Wednesday's shooting "evokes memories of the bombing that kill[ed] four black schoolgirls at a church in Birmingham, Alabama more than 50 years ago. That tragedy was a wake-up call for all of us, and this one should be too."