Mass killings have once again rocked our country, leaving a horrific death toll and exacerbating the nation’s toxic political atmosphere. The latest massacres left 22 people dead and 25 wounded or injured in El Paso, Texas, and nine dead with 27 injured in Dayton, Ohio.
For the record, the killers who carried out the bloodbaths with assault-type weapons were identified as young white men from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The El Paso shooter, Patrick Crusius, 21, from Allen, Texas, had posted racist, white supremacist and anti-immigrant rantings on social media. He surrendered to police after the shooting was over. In Dayton, the killer, 24-year-old Connor Betts of Bellbrook, Ohio, was shot to death by police to end his rampage. On social media he had said he could “happily vote” for Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, had promoted the violent antifa and asserted, “I want socialism, and I’ll not wait for idiots to finally come round to understanding.”
President Trump responded with appropriate remarks, expressing outrage at the “monstrous evil.” He rightly said: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.” He said the El Paso shooter “posted a manifesto online consumed by racist hate.” The president also blamed mental illness and backed legislation to impose the death penalty on perpetrators of hate crimes and mass murders. He pointed to “gruesome and grizzly video games” for the “glorification of violence.”
Trump, who later visited both cities to mixed reactions from residents, said he favored strengthening background checks for gun purchases and he backed “red flag” legislation to ensure that licenses were not issued to mentally ill people. Such laws, already enacted in 17 states, permit law enforcement, family members and certain others to request a judge to confiscate firearms from persons who might harm themselves or others. However, Trump did not call for banning assault rifles, which Democrats want to eliminate and the NRA strongly opposes.
For Democrats, the shooting in El Paso in particular prompted off-the-rails rhetoric from the party’s presidential candidates who outdid each other in blaming Trump for the massacres. None was more caustic than former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who said Trump was “promoting racism” and “inciting racism and violence in this country.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren told a cable network Trump “is a racist. He has made one racist remark after another, he has put in place racist policies and we’ve seen the consequences.” Joining the chorus was front-runner Joe Biden, who asserted, “we have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced the political strategy of hate, racism and division.”
Democrats in the House demanded that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell return to Washington to allow a Senate vote on gun control legislation passed by the lower chamber to tighten background checks for buying guns. A group of Democrats also suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi cut short their six-week recess and work on legislation to combat domestic terrorism. But reflecting the partisan divide in Congress, House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, along with other Democrats, said the best strategy was to focus on Republican McConnell’s refusal to consider the House-passed gun control legislation, a strategy backed by Pelosi.
What can we learn from the week’s turmoil?
Clearly, white supremacists who compose a fraction of the population have helped foment the toxic racial environment afflicting the country. White supremacists killed 49 people between 2000 and 2016, the largest number of any domestic terrorist movement, according to an FBI report in 2017. Most of the victims were racial minorities. Thus, the president was on target in soundly condemning white supremacy, the twisted mindset that gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan and similar groups in years past. Countering such groups is the job of the FBI, which has ample tools for getting the job done. The evident problem is identifying potential killers from these groups — and other individuals consumed with ideological hatred — and preventing them from acting on their impulses. Thus, the “red flag” approach which, unfortunately, has failed to work time and time again when signs aplenty were exhibited beforehand by perpetrators of mass killings but were missed or ignored.
Tighter background checks might well screen out some of the potential killers, but again, this is no panacea as illustrated by killers who had passed background checks and obtained weapons legally. Indeed, there is no panacea. For starters, every citizen must become more aware than ever of those “red flags” and take action, even if it means a family member or friend is involved.
Finally, these times call for healing words and acts, not blame-throwing and over-the-top accusations. The rhetoric on all sides must be toned down and conciliation must begin in earnest, leading to appropriate legislative and executive action – together with more awareness in every family and community across the country. Only through these steps can we hope to begin to prevent or ameliorate the plague of mass killings.