When will we start holding racism and misogyny accountable for the violence they rationalize and inspire?
The man who opened fire in a Lafayette, La., movie theater showing of the arguably feminist film “Trainwreck” was, by all accounts, a far-right ideologue. “He was anti-abortion,” a radio host who knew shooter John Russell Houser said. “The best I can recall, Rusty had an issue with feminine rights.” He reportedly encouraged “violent” responses to abortion and the idea of women in the workforce. A bar Houser owned reportedly flew a Nazi flag out front as an anti-government statement. He lashed out against “sexual deviants.” He posted comments against immigrants and the black community. Plus, he ranted against social service programs and “had lot of anti-tax issues,” another person who knew Houser said.
Houser was steeped and stewing in right-wing xenophobic, homophobic, misogynist and racist hate. He was obviously crazy. It’s generally safe to assume everyone who commits mass murder is. But Houser was crazy and held some beliefs that were variations of more mainstream conservative beliefs. The roots of some of Houser’s political views are hard to distinguish from ideas espoused by many, if not most, of the candidates running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.
I want to be very clear here: I am NOT saying any of them would endorse or remotely condone Houser’s violence or the extremities to which he took his beliefs. Period, full stop.
Still it’s naïve, not to mention counterproductive, not to acknowledge that what ensnarled Houser’s singular mind grew from seeds of a widely sowed ideology. Houser was a bad seed, of course. And he fell far from the tree. But he was of it.
Look at Donald Trump saying that Mexican immigrants are mostly rapists and drug dealers. Or Rand Paul saying paying taxes is tantamount to slavery, or Mike Huckabee calling gay marriage a “perversion” and Ben Carson calling women who take birth control “entitled.” Not to mention the GOP repeatedly encrusting anti-gay and anti-woman policies into its official platform while consistently working to block everything from comprehensive immigration reform to basic non-discrimination laws to equal pay. Again, to say this rhetoric causes tragedies like those in Lafayette would be too simplistic. But to say there’s no connection at all is downright stupid.
When there’s evidence that a mass shooting suspect who’s Muslim espoused anti-American, pro-radical Islamicist views, we tie that suspect to the broader ideology. Consider the shooter in Chattanooga, Tenn., for instance, whom conservative politicians linked not only to radical Islam but to ISIS specifically, despite the lack of evidence for that link and even some evidence to the contrary.
Black Americans are presumed to bear blame as a group even when they’re the victims of violence. This weekend, after a national gathering in Cleveland, leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement were tear-gassed by police. Some online instantly implied that the activists must have done something to provoke the police — reflecting the inherent bias about which Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in warning to his black son that “you must be responsible for the worst actions of other black bodies, which, somehow, will always be assigned to you.” We automatically pathologize all black people whether they’re perpetrating violence or the victims, regardless of the facts.
And yet when white men shoot up movie theaters or black churches, they’re given the benefit of individuality. We don’t automatically assume that they represent some disease within all, or even a subset of, other white men. Even in the face of evidence such as espoused racist, misogynistic views and participation in organized hate groups, we still resist drawing any broader conclusions about any white men other than the shooter. Meanwhile, most mass shooters are white men. Communities of color or of minority religions, as a whole, are rarely given the benefit of the doubt of collective innocence. White men, and white people in general, always are. That white privilege extends even to white mass murderers shows just how insidious it is.
Houser’s wife sought a restraining order against him. The alleged Charleston shooter reportedly accused his black male victims of raping “our women.” The mass shooter at the University of Santa Barbara in May 2014 was active on “men’s rights” Web groups and posted a misogynist screed. What’s wrong with us if we refuse to see the troubling patterns here? And how those patterns are extensions of far more commonly held and espoused beliefs? How can we ever help to prevent future atrocities if we don’t at least acknowledge these roots?
We habitually scrutinize the ideology behind black and Muslim violence while letting white men off the hook. If Republicans can talk about how President Obama’s rhetoric inspired riots in Baltimore, then we certainly can and should talk about how Republican rhetoric inspires many Americans to resent and hate their fellow human beings.
After running through Houser’s background of right-wing, hate-filled postings online, the local KATC news Web site then wrote: “What prompted Houser to kill people Thursday night remains unknown.” Which is only partially true. Sure, there’s more to discover about Houser’s particular motives and state of mind that night. But we know what prompted Houser. We know he is not an accident of a hateful, us-versus-them ideology, but an automatic, albeit unfortunate, consequence. You cannot plant the seeds of hatred and antipathy and then curse them when they grow beyond your control.
Spread misogyny and anti-immigrant nationalism and homophobia and anti-black racial bias, and they will take root. As a seed, Houser was downright rotten. But he clearly fell from a very dangerous and rotting tree.
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