Whitewashing Terrorism

Republicans have firm rules for fighting terrorism—unless it’s committed by domestic racists.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks to guests gathered at the Point of Grace Church for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition 2015 Spring Kickoff on April 25, 2015 in Waukee, Iowa. (The Confederate flag pictured is a stock image and was not behind Jindal during his speech.)

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Olson/Getty Images and Thinkstock

The Republican Party has a clear philosophy on fighting terrorism. First, we must prioritize the fight. Second, we must challenge the teachings that motivate terror. Third, we must confront separatists who promote these ideas in our own country. Fourth, we must monitor networks that fund radicalization and violence.

Unless, of course, the terrorism is committed by white nationalists. In that case, the rules don’t apply.

Last week’s massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina—to which an overt white racist has confessed—killed nine people. That puts it 15th on the list of worst terrorist incidents in the United States. It continues a long history of murders by white supremacists over the last 20 years. How are the 2016 Republican presidential candidates responding to this challenge? By setting aside the principles they normally apply to terrorism. Let’s go through the list.


1. Make it a priority. Last month, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, blasted President Obama for failing to monitor the self-radicalized jihadists who attacked a Mohammed cartoon contest in Texas. “There were all kinds of indications that these two young men were being radicalized,” Huckabee complained. “Why didn’t we see that coming? … The sooner we realize that that level of religious fanaticism that is all about killing everybody, even other Muslims, the sooner we are going to be able to identify it, surround it, and, ultimately, defeat it.”

Huckabee has expressed no such outrage, however, at being blindsided by the Charleston attack, even though the killer had detailed his radicalization online while posing with a pistol and the Confederate flag. On Sunday morning, Huckabee refused to say whether South Carolina should remove the flag from its state capitol grounds. He ridiculed the notion that the flag question “has anything to do whatsoever with running for president,” arguing, “People want their president to be focused on the economy, keeping America safe, some really big issues for the nation. I don’t think they want us to weigh in on every little issue in all 50 states.”


2. Target the teachings. Several months ago, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham accused Obama of ignoring the doctrines that inspire Islamic jihadists. “Their way of life is motivated by religious teachings that require me and you to be killed, or enslaved, or converted,” said Graham. “Their religious teachings compel them to come after us … If you don’t admit that, you can’t fight the war.”


The Charleston shooter, too, was inspired by doctrines of enmity, enslavement, and extermination. But Graham isn’t interested in these teachings. “We’re not going to give this guy an excuse about a book he might have read or a movie he watched or a song he listened to or a symbol out anywhere,” Graham told CNN. “It’s not the book, it’s not the movie, it’s not the flags, it’s him.” On Monday, after ducking the Confederate flag question for days, Graham finally agreed it should be taken down. But he hasn’t changed his view that the flag and other Confederate symbols played no causal role: “The problems we have in South Carolina and throughout the world are not because of a movie or symbols. It’s because of what’s in people’s hearts.”


3. Stamp out separatism. Earlier this year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal blamed the global spread of Islamic extremism on weak Western governments that allow parts of their countries “to operate in an autonomous way.” He claimed that “radical Islamists have been given too wide a berth to establish their own nation within a nation. … We will never allow for any sect of people to set up their own areas where they establish their own set of laws.”


So what does Jindal say now about the separatist flag that flies in South Carolina? On Saturday, he demurred: “We’ll let the states decide that.” The next day, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has warned of creeping sharia in the United States, was even more obsequious:

Q: Should they bring down that flag?

Santorum: You know, I take the position that the federal government really has no role in determining what the states are going to do. …

Q: Do you not have a position on this at all?

Santorum: I’m not a South Carolinian. And I think this is a decision—

Q: It’s beyond South Carolina, don’t you think?

Santorum: I would say that these are decisions that should be made by people—you know, I don’t think the federal government or federal candidates should be making decisions on everything and opining on everything. This is a decision that needs to be made here in South Carolina. Like everybody else, I have my opinion. But I think the opinion of people here in South Carolina and having them work through this difficulty is much more important than politicizing it.


Q: But what is your opinion?

Santorum: Well, again, it’s—my opinion is that we should let the people of South Carolina go through the process of making this decision.

Apparently, when the separatism has more to do with white supremacy than with Islam, Santorum becomes a relativist.


4. Investigate the money. Santorum often brags about a speech he gave nine years ago, in which he called for global surveillance of jihadists, including “tracking terrorists’ money” and “mapping the tentacles of terrorist networks.” Another 2016 candidate, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, pummels the Clinton Foundation for accepting donations from Saudi Arabia. Paul alleges, among other things, that the Saudis may have funneled money to the 9/11 plotters.


Now it turns out that Paul and Santorum received thousands of dollars from the head of a known white nationalist group that inspired the Charleston shooter. Earl Holt III, the president of the Council of Conservative Citizens, gave $1,500 to Santorum, $1,750 to Paul’s PAC, and $8,500 to another 2016 contender, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. This is the same CCC whose website the shooter credits for awakening him to the threat posed by blacks. All three candidates are getting rid of the money, but none expresses any chagrin at having failed to check out Holt and his network. Santorum’s campaign disclaims responsibility, stating, “The views the Senator campaigns on are his own.”

By Monday afternoon, the GOP was lurching toward damage control. South Carolina Republicans were offering to take down their capitol’s Confederate flag, as a gesture of sensitivity. But the problem with the party’s response to Charleston isn’t hard-heartedness. It’s soft-headedness. What happened in Charleston was terrorism. It’s the latest outbreak of a persistent national threat that Republicans have too long ignored. And taking down one flag won’t make that threat go away.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Charleston shooting, and of the 2016 presidential campaign.