On Saturday, the country watched in horror as one of the deadliest acts of domestic terror in our nation’s history rattled the border town of El Paso, Texas. The story kept getting worse – the number of injured, the number of dead, the motivations of the shooter – and we went to bed with heavy thoughts.
When we woke up Sunday morning, there was news of another shooting, this time in Dayton, Ohio, where a different disturbed young man shot up a nightclub, killing his own sister and several others.
By now, you have heard or read about the motivations of the shooters. In El Paso, the killer was a man who opined, in a dark manifesto, that our culture and way of life is under attack by droves of immigrants coming across our southern border. The murder’s views are the ideology of the white supremacist, a belief that cultural and even genetic superiority belongs to people with white skin and white culture. In the coming days, we will continue to learn about this shooter and his beliefs, and there will be a great deal of conversation and debate about the political environment in which he lived, and whether it created him or encouraged him.
In somewhat of cosmic irony, the political left and the political right retreat already staked-out positions and practiced rhetoric, as they have for years while creating this very environment in which we now live.
On the left, we’ll hear endlessly about the proliferation of guns. Some will say “We need to expand universal background checks!” and “Close the gun show loophole!” and other similar policy points. These are the same people who will say “No one is saying ‘take your guns’!” while at the same time many on their side are, in fact, saying “Take ALL the guns!”
On the right, among many well-trod objections, there will also be a thematic consensus on causation: mental health. There are other aspects that are addressed along with this, such as the influence of violent video games (that is a conversation for another column) or the deterioration of two-parent households. Still, the quick jump to “mental health” is one that many on the right (including myself) like to take.
But all of these practiced issues cannot and should not be the whole of conversation this week. Not this time.
Mental health is not the cause of this senseless violence, nor is the proliferation of guns. There are millions of people who suffer from some sort of mental or emotional distress who do not pick up a gun and open fire on civilians at a mall.
Yes, it does take a certain detachment from reality to be able to so freely and so selfishly take the lives of others, but that fact cannot account for the whole of the issue. Likewise, the existence of guns, or their availability, does not create acts of mass-casualty violence, nor are guns the sole means of undertaking it, as evidenced by countless terror attacks using bombs, knives, or even cars and trucks.
In many cases, the vast majority, in fact, it is the reckless inaction of our nation as a whole to address evil when it arises that is a primary enabler of these repeated and horrific acts. There has been plenty written before of people who are so devoted to a twisted, evil ideology that they commit heinous acts for a divine purpose – Islamist extremists believe they are dying for a glorious, Heavenly reward and the furthering of their ideologies agenda. In recent years, more frequent than Islamist extremism, white supremacism and its attendant political objectives is a motivating cause of violence against American civilians.
And it’s important to note, the invasion of white supremacist terrorism in our country did not occur in a vacuum. Political forces have been at work, some loudly advocating these views and positions, others quietly allowing them to carry on without rebuke. 2016 was a big year for them. That year saw anti-immigration rhetoric on a dramatic rise and found a champion in Donald Trump. That is not to say that Trump and the GOP are a welcoming home for white supremacists, but that white supremacists make their home there for the sake of political expediency on specific issues.
Also emboldening the rise of white supremacist terror is the dramatic increase in both volume and intensity of divisive political rhetoric, and even Internet-level trolling, on the big political stage.
The idea of dunking on opponents, labeling them as the “enemy” and saying “they hate you” and “they want you gone”, along with the general acceptance of the idea that we don’t have to talk to them – only at them and past them – has done what may be irreparable harm to our politics and our discourse.
If we are to confront the evil of white supremacy and bring a stop to the terror it inspires, we must first eliminate the conditions in which it thrives.
We must first fight to close the divide between us, as difficult as that sounds We absolutely have to see each other as people and consider conversation and compromise as something that is possible. We have to believe it before we can realize it.
This evil ideology, like all evil ideologies, exists when we dehumanize the people we don’t agree with, or just don’t like. It was the belief that Africans were less human than Europeans that led to their enslavement and foul treatment in early America and through and beyond the Civil Rights movement. Dehumanizing opponents is something that has to become bad for a political career, again.
The most important thing we need to do, though, is learn to recognize evil for what it is and confront it when it appears. It should not take this many acts of terror and death from white supremacists to open our eyes. It should not have taken this long, or continue to take longer, for many on the right to recognize it, rather than continuing to act as if there is no such thing as white supremacy, or that it is inconsequential.
It is time that we find the outposts where these people congregate, put sunlight on them, and address what they say and do. And deliver consequences.
Cloudflare has ceased its hosting services for 8chan in light of the El Paso shooting. That’s a start. Censorship is never the answer, but it is not censorship to take action against a group that is inspiring, cheering on, and perhaps actively complicit in domestic terrorism. 8chan is not the only website where this happens, but media attention has made it one of the most notorious.
We have to repair our political discourse, while also repairing our country. These attacks show that it isn’t just outside forces at war with American identity, but forces within our country at war it. The American identity isn’t defined by its whiteness, and that is problematic for people who believe what these terrorists believe. They want to change that, and we have spent years developing an environment in which they feel encouraged enough to take action against it.