Nine-year-old Liam Eller (L), helps a police officer move flowers left behind outside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after the street was re-opened a day after a mass shooting left nine dead during a bible study at the church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015.
Photo by Brian Snyder/Reuters

The Charleston massacre wasn’t about ‘religious liberty’

By this point yesterday morning, it seemed pretty clear what motivated Dylann Storm Roof, the accused gunman in Wednesday’s Charleston massacre. All available evidence points to a madman driven by racism.
For some engaged in the broader political debate, though, there was some surprising resistance to this basic detail.
In conservative media, for example, there was some striking caution about ascribing motives. “We have no idea what’s in his mind,” Rudy Giuliani told Fox News. “Maybe he hates Christian churches. Maybe he hates black churches or he’s gonna go find another one. Who knows.”
On the same program, Fox’s Steve Doocy, in all seriousness, highlighted “the hostility toward Christians,” adding, that the mass shooting “was in a church, so maybe that’s what it was about.”
In the political realm, most presidential candidates took a responsible line, but Rick Santorum thought it best to connect the murders to a broader “assault on our religious liberty.” The Washington Post reported on the former senator’s appearance on a New York radio talk show:
The former Pennsylvania senator pointed to what he described as anti-religious sentiment.
“All you can do is pray for those and pray for our country,” Santorum said. “This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we – you know, 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.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) appeared on “The View,” and also connected the shootings to religion. “It’s 2015,” the Republican presidential hopeful said, “there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.” [Update: see below]
This is almost certainly not what happened.
I’m not going to rant and rave about how inherently outrageous it is to “politicize” tragedies like these, because I’m not convinced those complaints are always compelling. Paul Waldman had a good piece on this yesterday, noting that while it’s obviously wrong to “milk people’s pain and suffering” for cheap partisan ends, “the ‘political’ encompasses much more than the partisan, and when something terrible happens.”
But if presidential hopefuls are going to use a tragedy to push a broader point, they should try to be good at it.
Santorum, for example, is eager to turn “assaults on our religious liberty” into a cornerstone of his national campaign. The way he characterizes it, if private businesses can’t discriminate against gay people, then the freedom of religion in the United States has been rendered meaningless.
But while the circumstances behind Wednesday night’s murders are still coming into focus, it’s probably safe to say this wasn’t an “assault on our religious liberty.” The victims may have been in a church, but it’s extraordinarily unlikely they were gunned down because they were Christians.
A former friend who had reconnected with the man accused of a shooting massacre inside a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, said Dylann Storm Roof had become an avowed racist.
Joey Meek reconnected with Roof a few weeks ago and said that while they got drunk together on vodka, Roof began complaining that “blacks were taking over the world” and that “someone needed to do something about it for the white race.”
If there’s going to be a conversation about the tragedy, let’s make sure the discussion is at least rooted in reality.
* Update: To his credit, Lindsey Graham told the New York Times this morning, “The only reason these people are dead is because they’re black.”