Before the coroner in Charleston, South Carolina, had even completed the autopsies on the nine victims of a mass shooting at the historically black Emanuel AME church, opportunists were already speculating on what could have encouraged the senseless racist attack.

Almost immediately, the focus turned to South Carolina’s embrace of the Confederate flag, which flies on state capitol grounds. In less than 24 hours, with no doubt in the minds of many, it became a foregone conclusion that the flag itself is what prompted Dylann Roof to commit that heinous act.

Although it’s hard to understand why the Confederate flag is still fodder for debate, the velocity at which the focus went from mourning victims to the symbolism of the Confederate flag reeks of blatant exploitation by the news media.

But the issue of the Confederate flag is complex, particularly in South Carolina. While there are probably those who support it based on personal racist views, there’s another element, where people don’t want outsiders to come in and dictate right versus wrong.

It’s going to take more than smug cable news anchors and pundits from their perches in New York City castigating South Carolinians to roll back that mentality.

Nonetheless, the issue has found its way into our presidential politics. Over the weekend, some of the Republican candidates for president were asked their views on the Confederate flag. The responses were a mixed bag.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) called for the flag’s removal, pointing out that he ordered the flag removed from the capitol in Tallahassee during his administration. But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) took a more nuanced approach, saying it should be left up to the state of South Carolina.
“What I do think is important to remember is that the people of South Carolina have dealt with this issue before,” Rubio said. “They have found a bipartisan consensus over a decade ago on moving that flag to a new location. And I have confidence in their ability to deal with that issue again. So I think it’s important to let the people of South Carolina move forward on it.”

I can think of a hundred other things our commander in chief should be worrying about besides the contrived controversy over the Confederate flag and what the South Carolina legislature may choose to do. Were we hoping the next president would issue a decree declaring the flag illegal?

It all goes back to this obsession with symbolism. Can we honestly say whether or not last week’s shooting would have happened without the Confederate flag on display on public grounds in Columbia, South Carolina?

To suggest that it was a major part of what happened devalues those who were murdered in the shooting. It wasn’t the ghosts of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis commanding it. Those nine people were killed because of the racist ideology of an insane lunatic, not because an inanimate object is on display in public places.

The casual observer may not recognize this given the amount of attention dedicated to the flag over the past week. 

It’s a further disservice to those honestly affected by racism in America.
We’re being led to believe that if we somehow eliminate all symbols of the Confederacy from the public sphere, racism itself would be eliminated. That is intellectually dishonest. Part of the “honest conversation about race” we’ve been meaning to have for several decades should start with admitting we get distracted by sideshows like this one.

As a society, we have a self-policing mechanism. You don’t often see people flying Nazi flags or wearing pentagram T-shirts. Rightly or wrongly, we have managed to make the Confederate flag taboo. Sure, there are a few holdouts, but eventually it will be something you only see in a museum and not flying on the lawn of a state capitol.
This shouldn’t have been the time for that debate. 

The flag’s opponents had the momentum on their side and have seized upon a tragedy to advance their cause. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) and U.S. Senators Tim Scott and Lindsey Graham (both Republicans of South Carolina) are all on board now, and Graham is a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

But it’s an obsession with symbolism that drives the narrative, one further exacerbated by our politically correct culture. It’s low-hanging fruit for the political class.

Let’s say the irrelevant demagoguery of the Confederate flag is successful and the flag is removed from government property, because we wouldn’t want anyone to mistake some benign historical gesture for an endorsement of racism. What next? Do we have to offer a politically correct version of our history in textbooks? Will that flag that belongs in a museum come with a disclaimer? What exactly is the end goal here?

Sixteen percent of Americans live in poverty. ISIS is on the march in the Middle East. The national debt is $18 trillion and rising, with Medicare and Social Security expected to be insolvent in two decades. 

But that Confederate flag thing — we’re going to make sure we get that under control.