As the cliché goes, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” I’m a gun-rights supporter and own some legally purchased and properly stored firearms, and they are no threat to anything—other than the errant coyote who attacks my herd of goats, or any potential home invader. Still, we all need to face the fact that people armed with powerful weapons can cause a hell of a lot of carnage.
That’s why the latest mass shootings are so upsetting. Your family is at a wholesome community festival, or doing some back-to-school shopping and, in the blink of an eye, you’re in a scene from war-torn Beirut. This is not a column about gun control. I will evaluate specific proposals as they are unveiled, but this column is about why some people—using high-capacity rifles or whatnot—commit atrocities.
If your neighbor were unbalanced, armed to the teeth and busy posting social-media messages about how much he hates you, you’d certainly support measures to disarm him. But you’d feel more secure if he didn’t hate you in the first place. Here’s another cliché: “Ideas matter.” The people using guns to slaughter people are, in most cases, driven by ideas. What are those ideas and why do they matter? Why do they hate you?
“If foreign terrorists attacked Dayton, El Paso and Gilroy, would America do nothing?” asked a USA Today editorial’s headline. Indeed. When it comes to Islamic radical terror, Americans aren’t fuzzy headed. They don’t ruminate about the need for mental-health services or question the reason why some of these killers stage horrific attacks.
I recall a comedy routine in which the actors, pretending to be TV anchors, try to figure out the reasons for an act of terrorism. They read the Arabic names of the attackers and pretended to be stumped by the motivation for the violence. It was an apparent jab at former President Obama for his reluctance to use the term “Islamic terrorism.”
Now, we’ve got a similar situation on the right. Not all, but some of the latest mass killers appear motivated by a far-right, white-nationalist ideology. A manifesto posted online shortly before the El Paso shooting spree, which may have been penned by the alleged shooter, railed against “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and worried about “cultural and ethnic replacement.”
The suspect in the shooting death of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue last year allegedly told the police, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.” We’re familiar with the fatal car attack at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2015 attack on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine people dead.
Obviously, not all of the recent mass shootings are the work of right-wing fanatics. Last weekend’s alleged shooter in Dayton, Ohio, reportedly had made left-wing posts on social media. One of the most infamous, politically motivated murder sprees was the work of the Unabomber, who penned a 35,000-word screed against modern industrial society. I remember conservatives noting the similarity of his ideas to those of Al Gore.
Despite Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson’s claim that the nation’s white-supremacy problem is a hoax, the evidence suggests otherwise. It’s not the nation’s only violence problem. But conservatives, including Donald Trump, were quick to pinpoint the reason for, say, a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people at a Christmas party. The then-presidential candidate called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Why is it so difficult to call out what’s going on now? I’m not blaming the president for recent violence, although I wish he would knock off the incendiary rhetoric about immigrants. Everyone should tone down the hysterics and anger, which only motivates the nutcases among us.
But the president and some of his supporters have a blind spot about white-nationalist terror, just as the former president had a blind spot about Islamic radicalism. The president’s recent talk was more presidential than usual, as he condemned “racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” but then he undermined his points with subsequent Twitter tirades.
There’s clearly an energized group of self-radicalized white nationalists who “take inspiration from prior acts of vicious mayhem and cheer high body counts on Internet message boards,” wrote National Review‘s Rich Lowry. He called on the FBI to treat these “domestic terrorists and subversives” in the way that they crushed what was once America’s most notorious hate group, the Ku Klux Klan.
Using existing laws to stamp out potentially violent extremists is a better starting point than passing new laws that mostly target law-abiding citizens. That means acknowledging that people who kill people with guns often are motivated by twisted ideologies. It’s time to confront those ideologies, whether they emanate from the white-nationalist right, Islamic radical movements or any other fever swamp.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.