The horrific massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand, which has taken at least 49 lives, reminds us of the slaughter at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which reminds us of the murders of innocents in a Charleston, S.C., church. White supremacy. Fear of an invasion. Conspiratorial, apocalyptic thinking. The alleged murderer in New Zealand — as in the other incidents — tells us exactly why the attacks occurred.
The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.
President Trump issued a perfunctory message of condolence on Friday and then went back to decrying the special counsel’s investigation and claiming victimhood for himself.
I cannot help but think back to the actions President George W. Bush took in the wake of Sept. 11. Bush went to an American mosque just days later. Instead of stoking division and Islamophobia, he told Americans:
America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.
Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.
I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.
Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.
That is how a responsible leader of a pluralistic democracy that enshrines religious freedom behaves. It might have been Bush’s finest moment as president. He knew the temptation was there to blame Muslims indiscriminately for the 9-11 attacks and that anti-Muslim violence and rhetoric would tear at the fabric of American society.
Now we are confronted with yet another white-nationalist attack. The Anti-Defamation League put out a statement, which read in part:
“This attack underscores a trend that ADL has been tracking: that modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalized like never before,” said ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt. “The hatred that led to violence in Pittsburgh and Charlottesville is finding new adherents around the world. Indeed, it appears that this attack was not just focused on New Zealand; it was intended to have a global impact.”
As has become a pattern with white supremacist violence, the shooter not only meticulously planned the attack, but also designed it for social media, even live streaming it on Facebook. The fact that his video is still accessible on several social media websites is a reminder that these platforms need to do more to stem the flow of hateful messages and memes on their platforms, especially white supremacist memes targeting Muslims, Jews and other minorities.
In the third year of Trump’s presidency we’ve witnessed the president stoke irrational and baseless fears of Muslim invaders (hence the travel ban and the lies about Middle East terrorists mixed into the caravan). We’ve seen him declare that there were “very fine” people were among the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville, who chanted the white nationalist theme (“Jews will not replace us”) — the same “replacement” ideology apparently at the heart of the New Zealand attacks.
Trump has hired advisers who believe the United States is in a life-and-death struggle with Islam, blurring the distinction between members of a worldwide religion and fundamentalists responsible for terrorism attacks. He has falsely labeled acts of terrorism from radicalized people in the United States as evidence of the Muslim threat he tells his followers they should fear. He has virtually ignored right-wing domestic terror — despite its rise in the United States and around the world:
The threat of far-right political terrorism, for one, is a growing concern in North America and Western Europe, according to the findings. While the United Kingdom, Spain, Finland, Sweden, and Austria were the only countries to experience increases in deaths from terrorism in Western Europe, both Canada and the U.S. experienced increases in total deaths in North America.
Far-right groups and individuals caused 66 deaths and launched 127 attacks in the regions between 2013 and 2017. The majority of attacks, according to the findings, were carried out by lone actors with far-right, white nationalist or anti-Muslim beliefs.
If one wanted to follow Trump’s rationale, they’d ban immigration from the countries identified above. But that would be insane, you say, because it ignores the scourge of domestic terrorism and casts suspicion on millions of innocent people. Precisely.
Trump has at his disposal a right-wing media that trumpets his themes and echoes his baseless accusations. The alt-right and white nationalists fill social media with the same blind hatred. Ordinary MAGA fans listen to Trump’s venom again and again.
In this cauldron of Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, we have seen a sizable increase — 17 percent in 2017 — in hate crimes in the United States. What did we expect would happen?
Did Trump “cause” the mosque killing? No. The murderer(s) are responsible for the deaths of innocents, for the assault on religious freedom, for an act of unimaginable evil. Does Trump contribute to the broader problem, amplifying rather than discouraging (as Bush did) Islamophobia? Yes. Does Trump give legitimacy to “replacement” ideology by creating a moral equivalence between its proponents and anti-Nazi protesters? Yes. Does he prefer to fuel fear of Muslims at the expense of taking serious and sustained effort against right-wing terrorism? Absolutely.
Bush put it best: “Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.” He never conceived that such a person would occupy the Oval Office.