In the biggest surprise of recent memory, the young man arrested for massacring nine black people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church was a person with “strong conservative beliefs,” a commitment to his heritage and tradition who only tried to take his country back. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old bowl-cut whelp, has been captured, and with 50 percent of major American political parties telling people like him to fetishize arms and rebellion just as the truth of their America is absolute and under attack, it’s amazing that we don’t meet a new version of him every week.
Mercifully, even some mainstream outlets seem willing to use the term “domestic terrorist.” Five years ago we might not have been so lucky. Back then, Newsweek absurdly convened an in-house discussion to decide who is a “terrorist” and emerged with “people in caves,” while whites were accorded terms like “separatist.” This, despite the fact that the event that inspired the discussion was a white man flying a plane into a building he hated, which you’d think would be a slam-dunk post-9/11 definition of the term.
No, this time, we can know it was race terrorism. The act echoes America’s greatest historical terror organization, the KKK, which murdered blacks who sought to change the existing white order. It echoes whites burning the AME Church to punish blacks for plotting against the existing white order. It echoes white revanchists burning and bombing churches in the Civil Rights era. It echoes an act of terror committed by a white supremacist against a minority church just three years ago.
This time we can know it was terrorism because there’s not a lot of wiggle room left in the terror debate when the killer reloaded five times, said, “You’re taking over our country, and you have to go,” and told one woman, “I’m going to let you go because I want you to be able to tell them what happened.” We can know because even Fox News‘ morning zoo crew of Doocy, Kilmeade and Hasselbeck (imagine Strom Thurmond sired the Three Stooges) were forced to kick the football away from race and toward the massacre as an “attack on faith.” It makes about as much sense as declaring 9/11 an act of architectural critique, but GOP presidential candidates picked up and ran with a theme that depicts white conservatives as targets just as much as the people dead on the church floor.
Thankfully, we can now move on to performative lamentations about politicizing the event, forgetting that terrorism, like war, is the advancement or retrenchment of a politics by other means. Here’s Mona Charen writing in the famously pro-segregationist, terrorism-pardoning, MLK-dismissing National Review, already shaking her head about how groups might have a political response to an act that is by definition political. Fighting violent politics with rhetorical politics is just opportunistic, dirty pool. What’s next? The Green Bay Packers formulate a football response to the Chicago Bears scoring on them?
The fact is, this is political because American movement conservatism has already made these kinds of killings political. The Republican Party has weaponized its supporters, made violence a virtue and, with almost every pronouncement for 50 years, given them an enemy politicized, racialized and indivisible. We can’t afford to allow political discussions of these events, because if we do, we might notice what’s already there, wracking the body politic like gangrene.
Movement conservatives have fetishized a tendentious and ahistorical reading of the Second Amendment to the point that the Constitution itself somehow paradoxically “legitimizes” an armed insurrection against the government created by it. Those leading said insurrection are swaddled by the blanket exculpation of patriotism. At the same time, they have synonymized the Democratic Party with illegitimacy and abuse of the American order. This is no longer an argument about whether one party’s beliefs are beneficial or harmful, but an attitude that labels leftism so antithetical to the American idea that empowering it on any level is an act of usurpation. Leftism no longer constitutes a debatable misuse of American power, but theft and governmental overreach.
And nothing — nothing — emphasizes that overreach and theft like black people. Mendacious twit and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued a statement saying, “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,” but to riddle it out all she needed to do was go outside and look up at the traitorous rag borne by Confederate armies and raiding parties and rapists and murderers that flaps outside the capitol as if to say, “Enact change at your own risk.”
For the neoconfederate ghouls driving movement conservatism, that rag represents the first leftist-directed black theft. A quite literal one: They are taking the black people that are our property. It’s there to repudiate Reconstruction — government redistribution of property for former slaves and reshaping of government to create a proportional voice for blacks. It was dragged back out to respond to the Civil Rights movement: the theft of whites’ ability to codify privilege and plunder into the law, “robbing” them of a permanent subservient underclass created through systemic disenfranchisement and deprivation. That last reaction is the permanent subtext of one half of the American political dialogue, the long low dog whistle that entered the mainstream of American conservatism with Nixon and the Southern Strategy in 1968 — a toxic mixture of anti-government resentment, absolute refusal to recognize the left as legitimate, and racial loathing.
With each new iteration of right-wing reaction, another layer of distinction between the objects of their resentment has eroded, until Democrats, minorities and theft function as one aggregate of American subversion. Probably nothing certified this perception for movement conservatism quite like Barack Obama’s winning the presidency twice as a milquetoast social democrat, and with over 94 percent of the black vote: plain and simple, when Barack Obama stole the country from its rightful stewards, it was black Americans who did it. But he needn’t have bothered. Obama merely confirmed an extant narrative that equated all vaguely left-leaning government action with mass redistribution to a parasitic black population on the road to American collapse. Lee Atwater, the former Republican National Committee Chairman and advisor to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, summed it up better and more emphatically than anyone else could:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”
The enemy is one entity now. Black people are the engine of the Democratic Party, which is the engine of bad government, which is the engine of illegitimate oppression. They are part of a vast national criminal enterprise — against which our founders gave us a special amendment as a lethal and liberating tool. To kill them is an act of rebellion, the hunting down of the criminal and the freeing of yourself and the just.
It’s still theoretically possible that Dylann Roof is merely insane, that his insanity coincidentally led him into a black church that stood as a historical symbol of black resistance and progressive politics and just happened to kill only nine black people, reload five times and leave a witness behind to testify as to his racist message. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the black community leader assassinated in that church was a Democratic state senator pushing for not only police reform but for gun control — a rolling back of not only the last bulwark of unofficial white supremacy and unaccountable racial punishment but of the easiest means for citizens to frighten and intimidate the “other” in their midst. And maybe he was inspired to choose these targets and send this message in a vacuum, an autodidact completely unaware of a flag of treason flying over Charleston and a mainstream political movement that trades heavily in the rhetoric of the rebellion that flew it. You could also win the lottery tomorrow.
But whatever you do, do not profane this moment by politicizing it. Do not ask about the politics of Fox News and Republican leaders celebrating an armed, avowed criminal like Cliven Bundy because he spouted neoconfederate language while painting himself as a victim in an America where blacks were worse off than when they were slaves. Do not ask why you can find pictures of Ron Paul shaking hands with the founder of America’s biggest white supremacy website and why he made millions off spectacularly racist newsletters. Do not ask whether his son’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act might have more to do with whatever thought process leads him to keep employing white supremacists as staffers. Do not ask why the former governor of Texas used to hang out at Niggerhead Ranch and winkingly campaigns on his support for Tentherism. Speaking of which, do not ask why that constitutional interpretation has led multiple conservative state legislatures to pass nullification acts of gun control just as conservative attorneys general invoked nullification to undermine an Affordable Care Act that the Tea Party demonized as an imperial handout to shiftless minorities. Do not ask why Newt Gingrich’s biggest applause line of the 2012 campaign outside of “Obama is a food stamp president” was berating black debate moderator Juan Williams in South Carolina (for whom “work…seemed to be a strange, distant concept”), while the biggest Kinsley gaffe of 2012 was Rick Santorum saying, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.” Do not ask why, in the first year of Obama’s presidency, when everyone was still paying Bush administration tax rates, it was important to take to the streets with AR-15s to stop someone from Kenya from stealing white people’s country. Do not ask why the most conservative Supreme Court in generations preposterously declared racism over and rolled back the Voting Rights Act or why conservative state houses immediately began enacting voting restrictions targeted at blacks. Absolutely do not ask why right-wing hacks and politicians scream bloody murder when the Department of Homeland Security reports on right-wing, racist domestic terror and ignores when law enforcement cites right-wing extremism as our main terror threat. All of that happens in a vacuum, and no one could possibly learn from that.
Most of all, do not under any circumstances politicize this moment, because you might risk discovering how much it could echo 50 years of the violently anti-government racialized rhetoric of a Republican Party piggybacking on 150 years of Southern white resentment. Because that would mean at least two weeks of everyone laboriously having to explain to you what a horrible, misleadingly coincidental thing Dylann Roof’s alleged acts were. You’ll want that explanation to seem fresh when the next coincidence happens. And the next. And the next.