First you hug your child, or your partner, or your neighbor very tight. Because you have now come to understand that in America in 2019, where 251 mass shootings have occurred in 216 days, your loved ones are truly only as safe as the angriest person next to them at a Walmart or outside a bar. They are, in other words, not safe. They are only lucky or unlucky. We tell ourselves we are powerless to do more.
Then you try to find the words to post, or write, or speak, but you have written this so many times before, and background checks and common-sense gun regulations and right-wing domestic terrorism are all words, affixed to commonly understood ideas about regulatory and legislative activity that might stop the rivers of blood, and they run headlong into the seemingly immovable wall of national psychopathy: “thoughts and prayers” and “it’s too soon.” After the Virginia* Beach gun massacre, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney insisted it was “too soon” to talk about “politics” while families were “mourning”—but just a few weeks later it was also too late for the people shot dead in El Paso. And then, while it was still “too soon” after El Paso to talk about guns, it was already too late for the dead in Dayton, Ohio.
As CNN’s Jake Tapper noted in a tweet this morning, it was too soon for the following officials from Texas, Ohio, and D.C. to come on television to talk about the massacre:
And so instead there was Mulvaney on ABC’s This Week (the president of the United States is at his golf course, crashing weddings and tweeting about UFC), responding to a question about the rising threat of white nationalism around the world:
ABC’s Jon Karl: Back in March he was asked directly, do you see today white nationalism as a rising threat around the world? His answer: “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have a very serious problem.” He downplayed the threat of white nationalism. Was he wrong to do that?
Mulvaney: No, I don’t believe that’s downplaying it.
Really? Because this is the Trump administration that is well aware of the threat of white nationalism and either doesn’t know how to respond or chooses not to respond, even as it cancels and fails to renew funding for programs that fight white supremacist terror. This is the administration that canceled two Obama administration grants to organizations focused on stopping violent extremism in its tracks. This is the administration that responded to data showing a rise in far-right terrorism by defunding the organization that gathered it, which is the most comprehensive such database. And this is the administration that, soon after, disbanded an intelligence unit at the Department of Homeland Security that studied homegrown terror.
Is Trump “downplaying” hate crimes by white racists hellbent—as the El Paso shooter explained in his “manifesto”—on doing something to halt a “Hispanic invasion of Texas” and on the necessity of “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion?” The manifesto lauded Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” and deplored “race-mixing” just as it distanced itself from Trumpism, and went on to attack “fake news.” The president, who has been telling people of color to “go back” to where they came from, does not believe that he has anything to do with the simmering race war he has inflamed. And we are so benumbed by the enormity of the crisis and the seemingly untouchable NRA (even as it collapses in upon itself) that we shake our fists for a day and go silent.
There are two relatively new words for all of this: stochastic terrorism, the term for acts of violence by random extremists, triggered by political demagoguery. There are people living in America who no longer have a president who claims to represent or even care for them: immigrants; naturalized citizens from “shithole” countries; city dwellers, particularly dwellers in cities with “Democrat” mayors; residents of the “disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess” in Baltimore; residents of California; residents of Puerto Rico; green card holders; all Democrats; all journalists who don’t pledge their fealty to him; any of those who voted for four congresswomen of color who are “hate-filled extremists who are constantly trying to tear our country down.” And those people live in fear, not just of a president who has arrogated unto himself the power to define who and what is American, but of a president who makes vulnerable communities more vulnerable, every single day, and takes no responsibility when they are attacked. It’s not difficult to make the connection: When, at a rally in May, a supporter shouted that the response to migrants was to “Shoot them!”, the president laughed. The president laughed again this week about homicide victims in Baltimore. Even the dead are not “his” dead.
Yesterday someone suggested to me that Donald Trump is like a twisted Mr. Rogers—he has made those who hate based on race, religion, or country of origin feel special, each in their own way. He has told them that he sees and cherishes them, and they have lost any reservations about how hate may be spoken aloud, posted online, or performed in a crowded mall on the Mexican border. He may not celebrate them, but he makes them feel important, and powerful, and that makes them feel reckless.
There are many, many things we can do about domestic terrorism and lax gun laws. But they demand that we toss off the learned helplessness in which we have swaddled ourselves, and reckon with the sick fetishization of the supremacy of whiteness and maleness and guns as transcendent American values. When Nazis marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, almost two years ago this week and chanted “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us,” we told ourselves it was a foreign invasion. The mayor of El Paso, Dee Margo, said the same thing at a news conference after Saturday’s massacre: “This person did not come from El Paso. It is not what we’re about. We are a special community, and this would not have happened from an El Pasoan, I can assure you.” But even if these foreign invaders come from out of town, claiming that they own their spaces, and also our spaces, it is not coming from a foreign army. It is coming from America, from the very top and the very bottom, from a long and bloody history, and it is powered by the death cult that is the gun lobby.
Twenty-nine people are dead in under 14 hours. White supremacy, guns, and leadership that evades responsibility for stoking racial fears are the causes. We can still do something in the nanosecond between when “too soon” becomes “too late.” Or we can be reduced to pitifully hoping that the ones we love stay lucky until the next time.
Correction, Aug. 4, 2019: This piece originally misspelled Virginia Beach. Due to a photo provider error, the caption misidentified Dayton as Denton.