Words matter, especially hate-filled, fear-mongering words circulated on social media, whipped up on extremist websites and, yes, spouted by prominent people in high places who ought to know better.
The weekend carnage in El Paso and Dayton shows that increasingly, the face of the terrorism threat in this country is home-grown. Authorities are treating the El Paso shootings as domestic terrorism, driven by extremist, anti-immigrant hatred.
The motivation behind the Dayton shooting is less immediately clear. But the FBI has been warning for some time that domestic terrorism is a clear and present danger, and white nationalism helps fuel domestic terrorism. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported on a surge in terrorist attacks in the U.S. “led by a more visible and aggressive community of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.” Of 65 terror-related attacks in the U.S. in 2017, more than half were blamed on racism or hatred or fear of foreigners.
Hate-filled words play on fears and feed the notion that some people — black, Hispanic, immigrant, different in some way — are a threat in an increasingly diverse America. Circulated widely, these words can drive people to violent acts. And, as the FBI warned after the El Paso attack, the highly publicized acts can inspire more violence.
President Donald Trump was, of course, right Monday when he said that, “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.” We can only hope that he takes his own advice seriously and remembers it once the national outrage over these latest shootings has receded.
That’s because the rhetoric of white supremacy and nationalism has long been part of Trump’s stock in trade. Before he ran for president, he was spreading the myth that President Obama was not born in the U.S. His campaign rallies were filled with cries for building a wall to protect us from immigrants he painted as violent criminals.
He repeats white nationalist rhetoric on Twitter. He tells four congresswomen of color that they are un-American and should go back “where they came from.” And so on.
When he’s not spewing racist and nationalist sentiments, he’s standing by smiling and nodding while others do. We saw this at his rally in Greenville when the “Send her back” chants started. We saw it at another rally a few months ago when a supporter yelled that migrants at the southern border should be shot, and Trump smiled and laughed.
The president is the most visible and powerful man in America. Whether we like it or not, he sets the tone of our national character and is a role model for many. He is making racism and white nationalism seem normal.
Prominent Republicans make things worse by failing to condemn him and claiming he’s not a racist. Sometimes they echo his words.
Of course, there are exceptions, like Nebraska state Rep. John McCollister, who on Sunday night tweeted his condemnation of Trump’s rhetoric and called out Republicans who were complicit to “obvious racist and immoral activity inside our party.”
But now he faces condemnation from members of his own party.
The poison of racism is spreading and fueling the fears and hatred of people who become homegrown terrorists.
What can we do?
We can condemn hate-filled rhetoric no matter who utters it. We can refuse to participate, expressing our views with civility. We can hold people accountable, including our political leaders, and demand that domestic terrorism get the attention it requires from law enforcement.
We can remember that words matter, and that violent, hate-filled words can lead to hate-filled deeds.