Even as the rest of the country reeled from the horror of the shooting that killed nine at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the right-wing began its shameful spin of what can only be called an act of terror. Those familiar with the long history of violence against black churches in the South felt a deep sense of foreboding at the news that a gunman killed nine people, during a Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston.
But, as Isaiah J. Poole noted, as the rest of the country grieved, the cast of “Fox & Friends” tied themselves in knots to spin the shooting as “an attack on faith.” African-American minister E.W. Jackson cautioned people not to “jump to conclusions about race.” Co-host Steve Doocy added, “Extraordinarily, they called it a ‘hate crime,’ and some look at it as, ‘Well, because it was a white guy and a black church,’ but you made a great point earlier about the hostility towards Christians. And it was a church. So maybe that’s what they were talking about. They haven’t explained it to us.”
By this time, Charleston’s police chief had already declared the shooting a hate crime. Surveillance video showed the gunman, a young white male, entering the church. An image from the surveillance footage led the FBI to name 21-year-old Dylann Roof as the suspect. A survivor told a reporter that Roof told his victims, “You rape our women and are taking over our country, and you have to go.”
Details about Roof started to emerge even before he was caught. Other than an arrest on a drug charge in March, and another one month later for trespassing, Roof has no criminal record. His father gave him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday in April. High school friends remembered Roof as a “pill popper,” who “had black friends,” but also “had that kind of Southern pride” and “strong conservative beliefs,” and made “a lot of racist jokes.”
Further details suggested the shooting was an act of terror motivated by racial hatred. Roof’s friends said that he talked of wanting to start a race war or see segregation reinstated. Roof’s roommate said he planned the shooting for six months. Dalton Tyler told ABC News, “He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
In a picture on his Facebook page, Roof wears a jacket bearing two white supremacist symbols. The first was the flag of South Africa’s apartheid government. Below the apartheid flag was the flag of Rhodesia, a majority black country ruled by a white minority from 1965 to 1979, upon gaining independence from Britain.
Yet, Fox News wasn’t alone in its spin, or its delusion.
Republican presidential candidates parroted the Fox News talking point.
- Former Sen. Rick Santorum said on a radio interview that the shooting was part of the war on “religious liberty,” and suggested that Roof chose his victims “indiscriminately.”
- Appearing on The View, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told the panel, “But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them,” Graham added. “This is a mean time we live in.”
- Graham also told CNN that the Confederate flag, which flies outside the South Carolina state capitol “is part of who we are,” even though “it’s been used in a racist way.”
- During a speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) mused: “What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country, there’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government. It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.”
- Former Florida governor Jeb Bush said on Friday, at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference, “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.”
- Former Texas governor Rick Perry told Steve Malzberg of Newsmax that the Charleston shooting was an “accident” probably caused by the over-prescription of medication, manipulated by President Obama to ban guns.
There was much more.
- South Carolina governor Nikki Haley (R) issued a statement on Facebook that was at once defensive and strangely obtuse: “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.”
- Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told CNN, “I don’t know what was going through the kid’s mind, but [it’s] certainly the act of a deranged human being, and this level of malice I think is unfathomable in this community, in this nation. It is … clearly the work of the devil.”
- Fox News Host Brian Kilmeade asked, “Is at about Christians? Is it about white-black? Is it about ‘I Hate South Carolina’?”
- Jesse Lee Peterson told Newmax TV’s Steve Malzberg that it’s “absolutely not true” that race is still an issue in America. Peterson also suggested that white anger at being labeled racist would lead to more attacks like the Charleston shooting.
- Radio host Sandy Rios said that President Obama “enjoys” incidents like the Charleston shooting, because it gives him another chance to “remove guns from the hands of the American people.”
- E.W. Jackson told radio host John Fredericks that the Charleston shooting was caused by “growing hostility and antipathy to Christianity,” created by gays and President Obama.
- Fox News host Martha MacCallum blamed the Charleston shooting on diversity, because “we have a lot of different cultures living here together.”
- Discredited gun researcher John Lott mistakenly claimed that guns are “banned” in South Carolina churches, to blame the shooting on “gun-free zones.”
- National Rifle Association Board member Charles Cotton blamed Rev. Clementa Pinckney, because he voted against concealed-carry: “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”
- Radio host Alex Jones linked the Charleston shooting to a socialist plot to use a “race war” to give the federal government an excuse to set up a tyrannical state.
- Radio host Michael Savage told his audience that the Charleston shooter may have been “a programmed killer set loose by the government.”
- White supremacists on the Stormfront website worried that the shooting would make them look bad, and took offense to what they deemed racial profiling of whites in the search for the shooter.
Misguided bans on guns in houses of worship turned this black church in SC into a shooting gallery. Nobody could shoot back.
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanJFischer) June 18, 2015
— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) June 18, 2015
According to a survivor, Roof asked for Rev. Clementa Pickney when he arrive, and was taken to the minister, who had Roof sit next to him at the Bible study. Roof sat with his soon-to-be victims for almost an hour. A Snapchat video taken by Tywanza Sanders moments before the shooting shows Roof, the lone white face, seated at the far end of the table.
Roof had an hour to see the humanity of his victims, and choose not to go through with his plans. Instead, according to survivors, he rose near the end of the meeting and said, “You all rape women and you’re taking over our country,” adding, “I have to do what I have to do.” Tywanza Sanders allegedly tried to talk Roof out of killing anyone, but Roof began shooting, stopping to reload his gun five times. Sanders died trying to protect his aunt, Susie Jackson. Roof killed state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lee Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; Rev. Daniel Simmons, 74; DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49.
The survivor and her five-year-old granddaughter pretended to be dead, to avoid being shot. But as he prepared to leave Roof noticed that she was still alive. “Did I shoot you,” he asked her. When she answered “No, Roof said ”Good, because I need someone to survive,“ saying that he planned to shoot himself. ”And you’ll be the only survivor,” he added before he fled the scene.
Roof was caught 245 miles away, near Shelby, North Carolina, after a motorist spotted his car, with a “Confederate States of America” plate on the front bumper. Roof has allegedly confessed to authorities that he was the shooter, and that he hoped his actions would cause a race war in the United States. Roof told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” but ultimately decided that he had to “go through with his mission.”
It is no coincidence that the shooting happened in a state that is home to at least 19 active hate groups; a state that still has no hate crime law; and where the confederate flag still flies outside the state capital, its presence there protected by state law. Nor is it a fluke that it happened in a city where schools are still segregated; where white police officer Michael Slager shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man; and where citizens say that racist ideology runs deep.
Roof did not choose his victims “indiscriminately.” Nor was he there because he objected to their religious beliefs. In a neighborhood with numerous churches, Roof chose Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church — the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South, founded by former slave Denmark Vesey. Known as “Mother Emanuel,” the church played a central role in the struggle for black equality, and became a symbol of the black middle class. Roof asked for Rev. Clementa Pinckney by name.
Reasonable people cannot deny that the Charleston shooting was a racially driven act of terror. The beliefs that motivated Dylann Roof are not innate. They do not develop in a vacuum. To deny the connection between Roof’s actions, and extremist rhetoric that tells young people like him that black people are inherently violent and criminal, and are “taking his country away from him,” is to enable its spread, and to be complicit in the actions it inspires.