An American President Bends to the Demands of Terror

After the attack in Pittsburgh, Trump again expressed his inclination to meet violence with the machinery of a police state.

Alexander Drago / Reuters

On Saturday morning, during Shabbat services, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire. The investigation is ongoing, and early reports are often imprecise. But it appears that the suspect, a white male named Robert D. Bowers, killed and wounded multiple people and inflicted life-threatening injuries on police officers before being taken into custody. He reportedly shouted “All Jews must die” before shooting.

Later that morning, President Donald Trump responded. “Something has to be done,” he told reporters as he boarded Air Force One on his way to Indiana. The president denied that America’s gun laws had anything to do with this act of gun violence. He suggested that the victims would have averted disaster by arming themselves. “If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” Trump said. With that, he expressed a position common in his responses to violence over the past two years: that the only way to combat terror is to yield to it.

Trump continues to argue that his casual bigotry and xenophobia, his exhortations of extralegal measures against political opponents, and his delegitimization of the media are inconsequential to the violence. Instead, Trumpism demands that violence be solved by local militarization: increased security at schools, the arming of teachers, and now, the adoption of guns in places intended quite literally to be sanctuaries from the scourges of the world. Taken altogether, what Trumpism seems to intend is the creation—or perhaps the expansion—of the machinery of a police state.

Violence has dominated the national conversation over the past week. Days before the Pittsburgh shooting, a gunman killed two black shoppers at a Kroger supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, just after he’d been seen unsuccessfully attempting to enter a nearby black church. On Friday, federal law-enforcement authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc, the suspect allegedly responsible for sending more than a dozen possible explosive packages to CNN and to Democratic Party leaders. A van belonging to him was plastered with pro-Trump propaganda, and a Twitter account apparently belonging to him brimmed with conspiracy theories, explicit threats of violence, anti-Semitism, and racism.

On Friday, in the very same speech in which Trump first addressed Sayoc’s arrest, he also laughed along to a chant from supporters to lock up George Soros, the liberal billionaire activist and philanthropist, who’d been one of Sayoc’s alleged targets. At a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, later that evening, despite a vow that “political violence must never, ever be allowed in America, and I will do everything in my power to stop it,” the president also repeated claims that he was a “nationalist,” derided “globalists,” and attacked the media. The very next day, the president suggested that armed guards should be stationed outside places of worship and that gun laws couldn’t prevent a mass shooting.

In facing what appears to be a rising tide of violence—a tide that Trump himself elevates and encourages—the prescription of arms merely capitulates to the demands of that bloodshed. The purpose of political violence and terrorism is not necessarily to eliminate or even always to create body counts, but to disempower people, to spread the contagion of fear, to splinter communities into self-preserving bunkers, and to invalidate the very idea that a common destiny is even possible. Mandates to arm people accelerate this process. They inherently promote the idea that society cannot reduce the global level of harm, and promote the authoritarian impulses of people seeking order. Historically, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism have been the three prongs of political violence that have destroyed democracies and brought along authoritarianism the quickest. Historically, police societies have been their companions, as opposed to their antagonists.

The gun-violence discourse will rage on. The National Rifle Association and its preferred politicians will continue to argue that the only way forward is to gird citizens with more firepower. Tensions over hate crimes—which themselves are always political violence—will increase.

The congregants hurt, killed, and traumatized at the Tree of Life are not martyrs created for another tedious American “debate,” nor are the black shoppers killed in Kentucky, nor the postal workers and politicians endangered by explosives. But the violences done to each of them are part of a narrative about the now of America. Hate crimes are on the rise, and have been since 2016. The national onslaught of gun violence still rages. And from Dylann Roof’s slaying of nine black parishioners at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 to the massacre of 26 people at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, to today, houses of worship are prominent targets of that violence.

Today, there are lives to be mourned. There are people who were extinguished in a place intended by law and custom to be inviolate, while they celebrated an elemental holy day of rest and kindness. There are families now saddled with the cruel burden of grief. In the most fundamental way, a peace accord has been breached. If the people at Tree of Life had all been armed before the fact, Trump is right that there “could have been a very much different situation.” That accord would have already been broken. The unraveling would have already begun.