Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

One Image, Two Symbols

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. -- One image. Two symbols.

Dylann Roof, the accused killer of nine parishioners in a black Charleston church, posted a picture of himself holding a pistol in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other. But the reaction to those two objects has been very different.

There has been little talk about guns, about making it harder for mass killers to obtain weapons. There has been a great deal of talk about flags, however, and Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina is leading a campaign to remove the Confederate banner from the grounds of the state capitol.

This dissonance reflects two deeply contrasting political realities.

President Obama did use the Charleston tragedy to bring up the gun issue. "Once again," he said, "innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting his hands on a gun."

But he knows that even reasonable and popular changes, like tighter background checks, won't happen anytime soon. The gun lobby is too strong. "The politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now," he lamented.

Until last week, opponents of the Confederate flag faced a similar landscape. According to a Winthrop poll last fall, 61 percent of South Carolinians favored flying the rebel symbol near the capitol.

Taking a different view has often been politically fatal here. When John McCain ran in the Republican primary in 2000, he felt compelled to support the flag, an act of hypocrisy he later regretted. "I feared that if I answered honestly I could not win the South Carolina primary," he admitted.

Now, the balance has shifted sharply against the flag, and one reason is the sheer horror of the Charleston murders. "I think you have woken up a lot of people in the state," Darla Moore, a prominent philanthropist, told the Wall Street Journal. "The silent majority is willing to stand up because something outrageous happened."

Defenders of the flag have long argued that it honors their Southern heritage. But Roof brazenly used that image as an emblem of racial hatred.

The victims included Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was also the church's pastor. State legislator Bakari Sellers noted that Pinckney's body was laid out in the capitol only 30 yards from the Confederate flag.

"That flag," said Sellers, "it may not have killed Clementa, but it gave his shooter and others like him a banner under which to justify their actions."

Moreover, Pinckney was well-liked in Columbia, even by white Republican legislators. One of them, Norman Brannon, led the demands for removing the symbol of Southern rebellion.

"It took my buddy's death to get me to do this," said Brannon. "I should feel ashamed of myself."

Others joined Brannon in showing moral leadership. Mitt Romney tweeted: "Take down the #Confederate Flag at the SC Capitol. To many it is a symbol of racial hatred."

Friends and families of the victims reacted with uncommon grace and forgiveness. "The politicians followed their moral authority," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a long-shot presidential hopeful.

Practical concerns reinforced that moral message. Haley, an Indian-American, is keenly aware that flying the flag near the capitol sends an offensive message to many outsiders who contribute to the state's economy: tourists, investors, convention-goers.

Private citizens could still display the ensign, she said, "But the statehouse is different, and the events of the past week call on us to look at this in a different way."

Politics plays a role, as well. South Carolina is almost 28 percent black, and while Republicans have no fear of losing the state in the next presidential election, they face a "demographic death spiral" on a national level, notes Graham, if they don't improve their performance with nonwhite voters.

In the end, the flag is simply a symbol. But symbols matter. And the spark that started here is spreading.

Four governors have vowed to end the display of Confederate standards on state license plates. Retailing giants like Wal-Mart and Amazon will no longer sell rebel-themed merchandise.

Cokie grew up in Louisiana, and had relatives who fought for the Confederacy. We own a vacation home here in South Carolina.

We love the South. So it's heartening to see the widespread revulsion against the flag that Dylann Roof brandished as a sign of rancid racism.

There should have been a similar outcry against the pistol he used to execute his evil impulses.

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