While campaigning near Ferguson, Clinton definitively labelled the killing of nine black churchgoers, as politicians and pundits remain divided on semantics
Hillary Clinton has branded the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston an act of “racist terrorism” and linked the attack to America’s wider problem of entrenched racial inequality.
Clinton was in South Carolina not far from the Emanuel AME church, last Wednesday, just a few hours before an accused white supremacist joined a Bible study in its basement and opened fire.
“That night word of the killings struck like a blow to the soul,” Clinton said on Tuesday. “How do we make sense of such an evil act? And act of racist terrorism, perpetrated in a house of God?”
Commentators have been divided over whether the atrocity, allegedly perpetrated by a 21-year-old South Carolina man, Dylann Roof, constituted an act of terrorism. The Justice Department said it was investigating the mass shooting as a possible case of domestic terrorism, while the the FBI’s director, James Comey, said he does not believe the atrocity fits that definition because it was not, in his view, “a political act”.
However on Tuesday, Clinton adopted the language used by many other liberals since the comedian Jon Stewart compared Roof’s alleged massacre to terrorism committed by Islamic jihadists in a widely shared monologue .
Clinton’s main rival for the Democratic nomination for president, Bernie Sanders, was quicker off the mark, labelling shooting an act of terror within 24 hours of the attack.
The former secretary of state and first lady also suggested the shooting at the Emanuel AME church was connected to broader racial challenges in the country.
“I know it’s tempting to dismiss a tragedy such as this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today’s America bigotry largely behind us, that institutionalised racism no longer exists,” she said. “But despite our best efforts and highest hopes, America’s long struggle with race is far from finished.”
Clinton made the remarks during a visit to a suburb of St Louis, Missouri, not far from Ferguson, where rioting broke out last year following the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown.
Despite the shooting and its aftermath being brought up several times during a question and answer session, Clinton did not address the topic head-on. She did not mention Brown, or the civil disorder that spread through the St Louis area after his death in August – and again, in November, when no charges were brought against Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown.
The only apparent reference to police shootings was a veiled reference. “We must do all we can to be sure our communities respect law enforcement, and that law enforcement respects the communities they serve,” she said.
Clinton’s willingness to address the broader issues of racial disparities head-on has been contrasted with her failed presidential bid in 2008, which she lost to Barack Obama. During that race Clinton, who was politicised during the 1960s civil rights movement, fumbled over race issues, a controversy that was compounded when her husband, then p resident Bill Clinton, criticised Obama in terms that some believed were racially tinged .
This time around, Clinton’s campaign believes she has found her stride on the issue of race, speaking forcefully about the need for reform of the criminal justice system, for example, shortly after rioting broke out in Baltimore.
Surveys also show Clinton enjoying broad and deep support among black and minority communities, in contrast to Sanders, who trails far behind in polls of Democratic primary voters and gains most of his support from white, low-income and middle-class supporters.
Despite being widely trailed in advance, Clinton’s speech at Florissant’s Christ the King United Church was brief – lasting around 20 minutes – and did not explore racial disparities in a huge amount of depth.
The event was, instead, more in keeping with the intimate listening tour that marked the start of her campaign.
“We need to confront the deep-seated biases and prejudices that still live within too many of us,” Clinton said in one exchange with local leaders gathered on stage with her at the church. “It is something that is hard to talk about. And honestly I think the vast majority of us could pass lie detector tests if we were asked. We’d say ‘of course not, I’m don’t have any prejudice of bias’, but we do. And we know we do if we’re really honest with each other.”
The speech also touched upon Clinton’s own Christian beliefs and Methodist background, quoting Martin Luther King Jr, the archbishop Desmond Tutu, and John Wesley, a co-founder of the Methodist church. Clinton praised the families of victims of the Charleston shooting for publicly offering forgiveness to Roof.
Relatives of the shooting took turns to tell the alleged killer they forgave him during a court appearance on Friday . “Isn’t it amazing, remarkable even, when fear, doubt, desire for revenge, might have been expected, but instead forgiveness is found?” she said.
“Although a fundamental part of our doctrine, its practice is one of the most difficult things we are called to do.” Clinton added: “Their act of mercy was as stunning as his act of cruelty.”
Clinton also endorsed efforts by retailers such as Walmart and Amazon to prevent sales of the Confederate flag – and welcomed moves in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol building. “It shouldn’t fly there, it shouldn’t fly anywhere,” she added.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015