The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and the Escalating Crisis of Hate-Fuelled Violence in the Trump Era
October 27th, 1:13 PM
Photograph by Pam Panchak / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / AP
Robert Bowers, who opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, this morning, killing at least eleven people, was not evasive about his intent. He reportedly made anti-Semitic statements during the shooting, and just beforehand posted on Gab, a right-wing social network, about hias, a Jewish nonprofit that supports refugees. "hias likes to bring invaders in that kill our people," he wrote. "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered." Earlier, he had suggested that he supported far-right nationalism but believed that President Trump was captive to a Jewish conspiracy. "Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist," Bowers wrote. "There is no #maga as long as there is a kike infestation."
American history has been marked by acts of anti-Semitic violence, including the shootings at Jewish community centers in Kansas City, in 2014, and Los Angeles, in 1999. It has been marked, too, by mass murders in houses of worship—in recent years, the massacre of twenty-six people at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last November, and the murder of nine African-American worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, by the white supremacist Dylann Roof. The Tree of Life shooting, however, was the second attempted hate-fuelled massacre in a house of worship within seventy-two hours. On Wednesday afternoon, a man named Gregory Bush allegedly shot and killed two African-American customers at a Kroger's supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, reportedly saying afterward, "Whites don't kill whites." Ten to fifteen minutes before, he had tried the predominantly black First Baptist Church, where he spent several minutes rattling the locked doors.
The manias of mass murderers are always particular. But the massacres in Pittsburgh and Jeffersontown—and the pipe bombs sent to a dozen Democratic leaders this week, allegedly by the Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc—share some obvious common causes. They are the toxic politics of the President, and the racist, nationalist fervor that has been inflamed by his rise, and the success and the militancy of the gun lobby, which for decades has refused to acknowledge the obvious: that one way to have fewer killings is to make it harder for Americans to possess guns. Each of these is a national crisis on its own.
What should be plain now is that each crisis is escalating, as is the frequency of political violence. Trump, asked about the Pittsburgh shooting, said, "If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better." The moral inadequacy is vast. Murderous acts of hate have occurred, on a national scale, several times this week. It is a tragedy that the President is not able to see them for what they are.
Trump's Response to the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting and His Obsession with the Word "Frankly"
By Katy Waldman
In his two appearances on Saturday, the President positioned himself as the rare hero who is willing to speak out against the unuttered and unutterable forces poisoning American society.Photograph by Andrew Harnik / AP
Speaking to the Future Farmers of America on Saturday afternoon, President Donald Trump addressed the shooting that killed eleven people at the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, that morning. "This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil," Trump said, "hard to believe and, frankly, something that is unimaginable." A few hours earlier, he'd told reporters that "it's a terrible, terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world." The world's problems go back for years and years. "You could say, frankly, for many centuries," Trump continued. But perhaps the violence could be helped: "If there were an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop them," the President suggested. "Maybe there would have been nobody killed except for him, frankly."
Trump uses the word "frankly" with the same precision and thoughtfulness as he uses all words. He is a child dumping out a box of crayons. One infers that the point of "frankly" is to place a vague emphasis. The word has authority, a stentorian, swishing, rhetorical quality—a variant of "believe me" (another favorite). Near the end of a series—pure evil, hard to believe, and unimaginable—the effect is of a showman readying to sweep open a curtain. When bemoaning the lack of an armed guard inside a place of worship, "frankly" appears to gesture toward a joke, an impish wink at the notion—both hilarious and sad!—that the only person getting murdered would have been the murderer himself, if Trump had had his way.
And yet there is something thought-shattering about this particular word emanating from this particular President. It's a terrible, terrible thing what's going on with hate in our country, frankly. Trump feels that he is expressing a hidden or unpopular truth. That is what one expects from him, after all. He alone can fix it; he alone can bravely confront realities that others fear to name. That Trump will deliver real talk, voice what the rest of us are thinking, be authentic, is the campaign promise that continues to shape his term, and, in his two appearances on Saturday, the President positioned himself as the rare hero who is willing to speak out against the unuttered and unutterable forces poisoning American society. But of course many people have been noticing and protesting violence and cruelty in America lately. They have linked it to tides of white nationalism protected and encouraged by Trump's own public speech.
Trump dislikes only the hostility being directed at him—his response to an armada of pipe bombs mailed to twelve of his political punching bags was a master class in victim-blaming. Trump has rendered the prejudice of Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, more than imaginable; he has conjured such viciousness like a necromancer. Then he claims that the effects of his own behavior are beyond comprehension, sealing the Orwellian routine with a trollish affirmation of genuineness: frankly. This is a liar not simply lying, but drawing attention to his lies in order to redefine the nature of truth. (Before the Washington Poststopped counting in September, the paper found that the President had made more than five thousand "false or misleading statements" to Americans.)
Before opening fire on the Tree of Life congregants, Bowers posted a message to Gab, a right-wing social network that, like other online forums for extremists, casts itself as an embattled bastion of free speech. "Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist," Bowers complained on the site. "There is no #maga as long as there is a kike infestation." The gunman's accusation evoked a riff-cum-vocabulary lesson from Trump's rally in Houston on Monday. "A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much," the President explained, before asserting, "I'm a nationalist." The "frankly" in this case—meant to expose the dirty truth about globalists, and to preface Trump's oath of fealty to tribal politics—reads as far more honest than anything the President said on Saturday. He is frankest at his rallies and on Twitter. There is a difference, of course, between saying what you mean and saying what is true. Trump is not practicing frankness when he deplores hatred. He is being frank when he foments resentments that are phantasmal. For him, falsehoods carry the weight of facts, whereas reality is "truly unimaginable."