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El Paso – the United States’ descent into xenophobic barbarism (part 10)

By Europaeus *

Continued from Part 9


On 5 August President Trump denounced white supremacy in the wake of twin mass shootings over the weekend, and citing the threat of “racist hate,” he summoned the nation to address what he called a link between the recent carnage and violent video games, mental illness and internet bigotry. But he stopped well short of endorsing the kind of broad gun control measures that activists, Democrats and some Republicans have sought for years, such as tougher background checks for gun buyers and the banning of some weapons and accessories such as high-capacity magazines.

And while the President warned of “the perils of the internet and social media,” he offered no recognition of his own use of those platforms to promote his brand of divisive politics. Instead, he focused on a rising intolerance that he has been slow to condemn in the past. “In one voice our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” President Trump said at the White House. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”

It seemed unlikely that the President’s 10-minute speech, coming after one of the most violent weekends in recent American history, would reposition him as a unifier when many Americans hold him responsible for inflaming racial division. He took no responsibility for the atmosphere of division, nor did he recognise his own reluctance to warn of the rise of white nationalism until now.

Speaking at a lectern beneath a portrait of George Washington in the Diplomatic Reception Room, President Trump read from a teleprompter as he denounced Crusius’ bilious anti-Hispanic manifesto as being “consumed by racist hate.” He also called it part of an “evil contagion” spreading online.

“These barbaric slaughters are an assault upon our communities, an attack upon our nation and a crime against all of humanity,” President Trump said of the massacre in El Paso on 3 August and another in Dayton, Ohio, on 4 August – at one point incorrectly referring to Toledo as the site of those killings. Between the two shootings, 31 people died.

President Trump, who visited Dayton and El Paso on 7 August, took no questions. He also did not repeat his call on Twitter earlier in the morning for Republicans and Democrats to work together to strengthen background checks for prospective gun buyers. That outraged Democratic leaders in Congress, who quickly accused the President of retreating from more substantive action on gun control under political pressure.

“It took less than three hours for the president to back off his call for stronger background check legislation,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic leader, Senator Chuck Schumer, said in a statement. House Democrats passed such a measure in February 2019, but the Republican-controlled Senate has not acted on it. Even some Republicans called on 5 August for that opposition to end. Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Mike Braun of Indiana and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania said that a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases should be brought to a vote. Senator Toomey and Senator Joe Manchin III, of West Virginia, separately called President Trump to discuss the background checks bill that they had drafted after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School on 14 December 2012, only to see it fall to a filibuster.

“The President showed a willingness to work with us on the issue of strengthening background checks,” the senators said in a joint statement.

President Trump’s first comments, made in early-morning 5 August Twitter posts, set some gun control advocates up for disappointment. The President had spent the weekend at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he was thinly staffed as news of the shootings unfolded. Perusing the news in isolation, the President tweeted several expressions of sympathy, along with more combative shots at the news media and his liberal critics.

By Sunday 4 August night, President Trump’s aides recognised that he needed to do more. Some advisers suggested that background checks would be an easy, bipartisan measure to endorse, but the President was uncertain. When early drafts of his remarks began circulating, they did not mention background checks or immigration. So aides were startled to discover that the president, sitting in the White House residence, had posted a tweet linking the two issues. Several aides argued that the linkage was a mistake, and the President dropped the reference to immigration and the call for background checks from his prepared remarks.

It was not immediately clear what other gun control proposals President Trump had been referring to on Twitter. The House passed back-to-back bills on firearms soon after Democrats took control, voting in February 2019 to require background checks for all gun buyers, including those at gun shows and on the internet, and to extend waiting periods for would-be gun buyers flagged by the existing instant-check system.

Instead of focusing on measures to limit the sale of firearms, Mr. Trump’s later remarks at the White House ticked through a list of proposals that Republicans had long endorsed as alternatives. They included unspecified action to address “gruesome and grisly video games” and “a culture that celebrates violence.”

Trying for a sombre tone at the White House, President Trump repeated his past endorsement of so-called ‘red-flag laws’ which would allow for the confiscation of firearms from people found to be mentally ill, and said that mental health laws should be changed to allow for the involuntary confinement of people at risk of committing violence. He gave no indication of how he would pursue any of his goals.

President Trump also warned that the internet and social media provide “a dangerous avenue to radicalize disturbed minds and perform demented acts,” even though he himself had amplified right-wing voices online with histories of racism and bigotry. President Trump also emphasised steps the better to identify and respond to signs of mental illness which could lead to violence, repeating a familiar conservative formulation that de-emphasizes the significance of widely available firearms. “Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun,” President Trump said. Calling those who carry out mass shootings “mentally ill monsters,” he also said he was directing the Justice Department to propose legislation calling for the death penalty for “those who commit hate crimes and mass murders.” He added that he had “asked the F.B.I. to identify all further resources they need to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism – whatever they need.”

Gun control groups reacted sharply to President Trump’s address. “Let’s be clear: This is not about mental health. It’s not about video games. It’s not about movies,” said Mr. John Feinblatt, the president of ‘Everytown for Gun Safety’, a gun control group. “Those are all N.R.A. talking points. This is about easy access to guns.”

President Trump has previously denounced racism with scripted remarks which sounded out of tune with his typical language. After the killing of a counterprotester at a white-power rally in Charlottesville, Va., two years ago, he called white supremacists “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” But those remarks followed earlier off-the-cuff comments by the President, who had been criticised for not more forcefully denouncing the ‘Unite the Right’ rally, which was organized by neo-Nazis. Instead he condemned “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” President Trump later declared that the event had “some very fine people on both sides.” Aides said that he was referring to nonviolent protesters defending Southern heritage, and that he was angry that the news media had not paid more attention to left-wing Antifa activists who engaged in violence. In March 2019, after an avowed white supremacist killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand, Mr. Trump said he did not “really” see a rising threat from white nationalism. “It’s a small group of people,” he added.

The President had also previously declared himself a supporter of stronger gun control, only to retreat from the issue. After a gunman killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, President Trump startled Republican lawmakers in February when, on live television, he appeared to embrace comprehensive gun control legislation which would expand background checks, keep guns from mentally ill people and restrict gun sales for some young adults. But he made little effort to follow through.

Some of the Democrats campaigning for their party’s presidential nomination condemned President Trump for not calling the El Paso attack a ‘white supremacist’ act of domestic terrorism and blamed the White House for fuelling ‘white nationalist’ sentiment.

No federal agency is responsible for designating domestic terrorism organisations, as has been the case for international terrorism. Similarly, there is no criminal charge of domestic terrorism, and suspects who are by definition considered domestic terrorists are charged under other laws, such as hate crime, gun and conspiracy statutes. (M. Crowley and M. Haberman, ‘Trump condemns white supremacy but stops short of major gun controls,’ The New York Times, 5 August 2019).

Since the recent massacres shootings there have been bipartisan overtures, particularly when it comes to limited background checks and ‘red flag laws’. But overall, there appear to be two legislative views. Democrats want universal background checks – with some pushing for a ban on assault weapons – while Republicans continue to advocate on policies independent of guns, like mental health.

These are more or less the fault lines which have dominated the debate on gun control for years, and lawmakers are making no pretense about the fact that neither might lead to effective legislation.

“The 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school was all young kids. The 2017 shooting in Las Vegas was all people out for a night. The 1999 shooting at Columbine High School was all high school kids. These are all horrific tragedies. And yet, in the political world, in the media world, in the world we live in, those issues fade, I hate to say it, after three or four weeks,” said Republican Rep. Peter King. As one of the few Republicans who supports universal background checks, Mr. King said that the onus would be on the President to ensure that gun control remains in the national conversation, and that he should use his platform to push for background checks.

President Trump had indicated on 5 August 2019 that he would support legislation strengthening background checks, tweeting that he wanted to pair the policy with immigration reform. But when he addressed the nation from the White House several hours later, he did not maintin that view. Instead, he advocated for policies like crackdowns on violent video games and mental health reform.

It was the strongest sign yet that both parties would stay on their respective position. Shortly after President Trump’s address, Democrats continued their renewed push to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring his chamber back to Washington from the August recess to vote on the legislation that the House of Representatives had passed in February expanding and strengthening background checks. Since Senator McConnell had not scheduled a vote on the two bills or referred them to the requisite committees, they have remained dormant in the Senate for months.

“It is incumbent upon the Senate to come back into session to pass this legislation immediately,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer said in a joint statement on 5 August.

The strategy of attacking Senator McConnell continued through 5 August. In a conference call with her colleagues, Ms. Pelosi emphasised the importance of pushing him to hold this vote, noting that the request for pressure was coming from victims of gun violence.

But if anyone was impervious to external pressure – particularly from the opposing party – it was the Senate majority leader. Senator McConnell had given no signal that he would heed the Democrats’ call.

The majority leader issued another statement on the evening of 5 August, stating that he had discussed the President’s priorities with several Senate committee chairs and “encouraged them to engage in bipartisan discussions of potential solutions to help protect our communities without infringing on Americans’ constitutional rights.” (A. Abramson, ‘Why this weekend’s tragedies probably still won’t be enough to push Congress to act on gun control’, TIME, 6 August 2019).

President Trump was preparing to visit El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, on 7 August, appearances which were not to be universally welcome as the two cities grieved from weekend mass shootings.

Several Democratic officials had urged Trump not to visit El Paso.

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo (R) announced Aug. 5 that President Trump will visit the city in Aug. 7 to meet with local authorities. (Reuters).

And on the afternoon of 6 August, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Democrat, encouraged people unhappy over President Trump’s intended visit to the city of about 140,000 to protest. “I think people should stand up and say they’re not happy if they’re not happy he’s coming,” Whaley told reporters.

“This president, who helped create the hatred that made the tragedy possible, should not come to El Paso,” former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) tweeted late on 5 August. “We do not need more division. We need to heal. He has no place here.”

The words of O’Rourke, a presidential candidate, echoed those earlier in the day of Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), whose district includes the Walmart targeted in the massacre. During a television appearance on 5 August, she urged the president and his team “to consider the fact that his words and his actions have played a role in this.” “From my perspective, he is not welcome here,” Escobar said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “He should not come here while we are in mourning.”

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, a Republican, said at a 5 August news conference that he would welcome Trump in an official capacity and ask him “to support our efforts with any and all federal resources that are available.” But Mayor Margo also cautioned Trump against invoking his previous rhetoric to talk about the border city. “I will continue to challenge any harmful and inaccurate statements made about El Paso.” Margo said. “We will not allow anyone to portray El Paso in a way that is not consistent with our history and values.”

Mr. Adolpho Telles, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, said during a television interview on 6 August that he welcomed President Trump’s visit. “Clearly it is going to help with people healing, and this is a time of healing,” Telles said on C.N.N. He accused Democrats of “making this a political event for their benefit.”

Speaking to reporters in Dayton, Mayor Whaley said that she was not sure that President Trump’s visit would have been helpful. “Look, I have no sense of what’s in President Trump’s mind at all, right?” she said. “I can only hope that as president of the United States he’s coming here because he wants to add value to our community, and he recognizes that that’s what our community needs.” Asked whether President Trump was coming too soon after the shootings, Ms. Whaley said: “He’s the president of the United States. He does his calendar. I do mine.” She also criticised Pesident Trump’s Oval Office remarks on 5 August about the two mass shootings, saying that “his comments weren’t very helpful to the issues around guns.” “I’m disappointed with his remarks.” Ms. Whaley said. “I think they fell really short. He mentioned gun issues — like — one time. I don’t know if he knows what he believes, frankly.”

Asked during an earlier C.N.N. interview on 6 August whether he wanted President Trump to visit his home state, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) noted that he represents a different area but said that Trump “would not be welcome in my hometown.” Mr. Ryan, another 2020 hopeful whose congressional district includes a large swath of northeastern Ohio, called Trump “a polarizing figure.” “He finds a million ways to divide us,” Mr. Ryan said. “He’s got to get beyond that.”

On 6 August Vice President Pence spoke about the dual attacks during an Alliance Defending Freedom’s conference. He said that he shared the President’s belief that “hate has no place in America.” “The sinister ideologies of racism, bigotry and white supremacy must be defeated,” Pence said.

The Vice President said that President Trump had directed the F.B.I. to prioritise combatting hate crimes and domestic terrorism. “As the President also said, now is the time to set destructive partisanship aside.” Pence added. (J. Wagner, ‘Trump plans visits to El Paso and Dayton, where he won’t be universally welcome,’ The Washington Post, 6 August 2019).

“This is not who we are.”

Americans hear these words again and again in the hours after a mass shooting. A politician will speak them, or perhaps a police officer.

And so it was no surprise to find these words echoing through the aftermath of the shooting in El Paso, and it was tempting once again to believe them. They are defiant words reserved for moments which demand strength and fury and indignation. They sound earnest and true.

Then, not quite 13 hours after the massacre at El Paso, someone opened fire in Dayton, and the lie revealed itself yet again.

People are what they repeatedly do, and in the United States what Americans repeatedly do is mow down civilians.

And so, according to all the available evidence, this is exactly who they are.

It is obvious if one confronts the reality. Mass shootings are so frequent now that it is possible, unless one has a personal connection to a particular massacre, to forget quite recent tragedies entirely.

The shooting at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California, just before than at El Paso, would already be totally forgotten by the public at large were it not for the unusual setting. By the following week it was to be subsumed entirely.

How much does one remember about the shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building three months before, where 12 people died? Before El Paso, it was the deadliest American mass shooting of 2019.
This is who Americans are.

And yet, the notion that these terrible crimes they keep causing is not a fundamental part of their identity persists, even as Americans fail to take any real measures to stop such atrocities repeating again and again. That is ineffectual excuse-making. It is hopelessness masquerading as hope.

But somehow “this is not who we are” has now descended into self-parody in the manner of “thoughts and prayers” – a post-shooting mantra so tiresome that even the most craven politicians largely avoid it. Amercans also dismiss the disingenuous calls not “to politicise” the latest shooting.

Still, “This is not who we are” endures, perhaps because it speaks to something at humans’ very core. Of course, Americans do not want to think of themselves as a nation which tolerates the indiscriminate murder of civilians a dozen or so at a time, for a complex of reasons, including ‘white supremacy’, workplace dissatisfaction, anti-Semitism, or misogyny, or some violent madness one might never understand.

That is not us, Americans tell themselves.

And yet, El Paso … And yet, Dayton…

Nothing will be done. Everybody knows that.

It is past time to admit that “this is precisely who we are”: a nation which willingly trades the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians for unencumbered access to the weapons best suited to slaughter them.

When Americans will admit that allowing these massacres to continue is in fact a choice they are making, maybe then they will be able to close the gaping loopholes in their background-check laws. Maybe then they will institute a strong federal ban on the kind of weapons which make it possible for a murderous man to commit such crimes.

In the meantime, “this is who Americans are”: the ‘land of the free’ and the home of the dead. (N. Ramos, ‘Opinion – Let’s admit it: This is who we are’, Information Clearing House, 6 August 2019).

Many people were infuriated with the apparent inconsistency of President Trump’s call to “condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy”, as he has systematically used that language since before taking office.

People’s attention shifted to President Trump. Who blamed ‘fake news’, video games and mental illness but not his hate speech and racism, as incentives behind record-numbers in hate crimes across the nation.

“I say to President Trump: Talk is cheap. We need action. Stop the racism. Stop the anti-immigrant bigotry coming out of your mouth. Tell [Senate Majority Leader] McConnell to pass gun safety legislation the American people want,” Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders tweeted on 5 August, reiterating his call to ban assault weapons and implement a buy-back programme to get assault weapons off the streets.

The President did not directly address accusations by critics about his anti-immigrant and racially charged comments, but in a series of early morning tweets on 5 August he reiterated his accusations against ‘fake news’ and media bias as the culprits. “Media has a big responsibility to life and safety in our Country. Fake News has contributed greatly to the anger and rage that has built up over many years.” President Trump tweeted. And he went on to say that the “glorification of violence,” video games, “troubled youth,” and “mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, tweeted saying that “White supremacy is not a mental illness. We need to call it what it is: domestic terrorism. And we need to call out Donald Trump for amplifying these deadly ideologies.”

As of 5 August 2019, 250 mass shootings have occurred in 2019, averaging 1.2 shootings per day; 979 people were shot and of those, 246 died. The numbers match an ever-growing trend in hate crimes. According to the F.B.I.’s 2018 annual analysis, hate crime reports increased 17 per cent in 2017 from 2016, rising for the third consecutive year. Of the more than 7,100 hate crimes reported in 2018, nearly three out of five were motivated by race and ethnicity, according to the report. Religion and sexual orientation were the other two primary motivators.(‘Telesur – White supremacist in chief: social media prominent Democrats react to Trump, Information Clearing House, 6 August 2019).

As the late Toni Morrison wrote after the 2016 election, “ … All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness. Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of “Americanness” is color.

Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.

It may be hard to feel pity for the men who are making these bizarre sacrifices in the name of white power and supremacy. Personal debasement is not easy for white people (especially for white men), but to retain the conviction of their superiority to others – especially to black people – they are willing to risk contempt, and to be reviled by the mature, the sophisticated, and the strong. If it weren’t so ignorant and pitiful, one could mourn this collapse of dignity in service to an evil cause.

The comfort of being “naturally better than,” of not having to struggle or demand civil treatment, is hard to give up. The confidence that you will not be watched in a department store, that you are the preferred customer in high-end restaurants – these social inflections, belonging to whiteness, are greedily relished.

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters – both the poorly educated and the well educated – embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

William Faulkner understood this better than almost any other American writer. In “Absalom, Absalom,” incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its “whiteness” (once again), the family chooses murder.” (T. Morrison, ‘Making America white again,’ The New Yorker, 21 November 2016. Toni Morrison, who died on 5 August 2019, was the author of twelve novels. She received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993).

Continued tomorrow … (Part 11)


* Europaeus landed in Australia over fifty years ago. Except for the blue skies and starry nights between 02.12.1972 and 10.11.1975 the place has been constantly overwhelmed by what Hannah Arendt called the ‘sand storm’ – a metaphor for totalitarianism.

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1 comment

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  1. Roswell

    So they finally impeached the bastard. The corrupt Senate will see that he’s not removed, but he’ll forever have an asterisk next to his name.

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