POLITICS
06/18/2015 07:45 pm ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

These Republicans Aren't Sure What Motivated A White Guy To Kill 9 Black Churchgoers, But It Wasn't Racism

A barbaric act like Wednesday's massacre of nine strangers by a white gunman at the historic black Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, shocks the conscience and makes it uncomfortable to face the painful truth about what happened.

This may help explain why some Republicans steered clear of the issue of race on Thursday in remarks about the killings. The politicians, including some 2016 presidential candidates, offered condolences to the victims, but resisted ascribing racial motivations to the gunman, even as information about suspected killer Dylann Roof mounts.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen has called the shootings a "hate crime" and a federal investigation into possible racial motives has begun.

A Facebook photo surfaced on Thursday showing Roof wearing a jacket adorned with two patches that have long been linked to white supremacy. Another photo showed him in front of a car with a "Confederate States of America" license plate. Former friends, acquaintances and a roommate have described Roof's racist sentiments and desires to commit racial violence. Most damningly, a survivor of the church massacre said Roof told his victims he had come "to shoot black people."

More about Roof's beliefs and motives is likely to emerge later. But that's no reason to dance around what's already obvious, especially if you're doing so because reality doesn't fit your political agenda.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a GOP presidential candidate, tied the shooting to a lack of faith among Americans during a speech Thursday at a Faith and Freedom Coalition conference in Washington.

"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."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another 2016 presidential candidate, told CNN that he saw the killings as an isolated act by a deranged individual.

"I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don't think it's anything broader than that. It's about a young man who is obviously twisted."

Jeb Bush, who recently threw his hat in the 2016 ring, fielded a question from The Huffington Post's Laura Bassett at the Faith and Freedom Coalition conference and wasn't willing to state with certainty what has now already been confirmed about the shooter's motive.

"It was a horrific act and I don't know what the background of it is, but it was an act of hatred. ... Looks like to me it was [racially motivated], 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."

Rick Santorum, also running for the White House, said hatred spurred the killings, and went on to suggest the motive may have been hatred of religion.

“You just can’t think that things like this can happen in America. It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be? ... 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.”

On Friday, Santorum changed course.

"It was clearly racially motivated. Clearly," Santorum told The Huffington Post's Igor Bobic at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Conference.

He went on to explain that at the time of his initial comments on Thursday, he "didn't know it was racially motivated, nobody did."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), who is expected to announce plans for the 2016 presidential race soon, seemed uninterested in commenting on the shooter's possible motive during an interview with Fox News.

"Let's be honest, there's evil in the world. What you're seeing today, what we saw last night, that was evil. ... Law enforcement will figure out what his so-called motivations were. We shouldn't try to pretend we're going to understand his mind."

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is expected to run for president in 2016, addressed the situation in Charleston Thursday following a public event. He also chose not to speak about a motive for the crime.

"It's an awful tragedy anytime that somebody would walk in and participate in a prayer service for an hour and then get up and shoot the people you have been praying with? That's obviously a pretty depraved person. ... I understand that they believe they have the guy in custody and so let's let the criminal justice system work."

Rick Perry, another likely 2016 candidate, on Friday told Newsmax that the shooting was a "crime of hate" -- he also referred to it as an "accident," for some reason -- but instead of discussing the racial motives, he suggested not enough people were talking about Roof's previous drug arrest.

“Also, I think there is a real issue to be talked about. It seems to me, again without having all the details about this, that these individuals have been medicated and there may be a real issue in this country from the standpoint of these drugs and how they’re used.”

Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) told CNN that he didn't "have a clue" about Roof's potential connections to white supremacists or racist groups. Instead, he pointed to the supernatural.

"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."

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) released a statement late Wednesday, saying, "we'll never understand what motivates" people to commit such crimes. It was early, so perhaps she can be forgiven for not being willing to state the obvious. At a prayer vigil on Thursday, Haley focused on the community's efforts to heal, avoiding all mention of the shooter's motive.

This article was updated after publication to include comments from Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and Rick Perry. It has also been updated with additional comments from Rick Santorum.

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