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.
David Frum: America’s fatal shame
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.
Read: The synagogue killings mark a surge of anti-Semitism.
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.