For much of the right, word choice in the wake of deadly violence is everything. Whether and how quickly a public official uses the word “terrorism,” for example, is often considered a test of leadership, if not moral clarity. Republicans have spent the last several years insisting use of the phrase “Islamic terrorism” is practically a national security strategy unto itself.
With this in mind, it was of interest to see this Huffington Post report on Jeb Bush’s awkward choice of words in response to the massacre in Charleston.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Friday that he isn’t sure what motivated a young white man to walk into a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday night and kill nine people.“I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” the former Florida governor said at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference.
It’s a difficult perspective to understand. Obviously, the details of the case are still coming into focus, but based on literally everything we know, there’s no ambiguity as to what was on Dylann Storm Roof’s mind on Wednesday night. These murders were the result of racism. It’s not an open question. No one should be confused by this obvious detail.
A woman claiming to be the cousin of one of the victims said she spoke with a survivor who said that the shooter “reloaded five different times … and he just said, ‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.’”
Pressed on whether the shootings were because of race, the Republican presidential candidate nevertheless added this morning, “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.”
Why not simply acknowledge what is so plainly true?
Jon Chait noted, “[A] number of conservative figures have treated Roof’s motives as unknowable…. What’s genuinely mysterious is not just why conservatives believe such nonsense but why they feel obliged to say it.”
Over at Vox, Zack Beauchamp posited a possible explanation.
Race has long been a problem area for conservatives, but the conservative dilemma in the Obama era is particularly acute. Some pretty extraordinary research, from UC Irvine’s Michael Tesler, shows that racial issues have become especially polarized during the Obama era: basically, the fact that America’s got a Democratic, black president means Republicans have grown more skeptical that structural racism is a huge, enduring problem. Racial attitudes in some areas have hardened: Republican opposition to affirmative action and interracial marriage have spiked under Obama.What that means is that it’s very difficult for Republicans to talk about racism as a serious, enduring problem without alienating a real part of the base.
* Update: A Bush campaign spokesperson said on Twitter today that “of course” the Florida Republican believe the murders were racially motivated. The candidate himself, obviously, was far less clear on the matter.