The victims of an anti-Semitic spree murder at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh deserve better than to be reduced to just another topic in an already frenzied social-media shouting match about President Donald Trump.
The liberal commentariat assures us that that ordinarily it isn’t fair to draw connections between political figures and their most deranged “followers,” but some insist that in this case we must. Donald Trump is responsible for these murders in some way, they say. And so is everyone aligned with him.
In fact, however, this isn’t an exception. Liberals don’t hesitate to draw connections between their usual political and cultural opponents and domestic terrorism or crime. Bill Clinton famously blamed talk radio — then synonymous with one man, Rush Limbaugh — for the Oklahoma City bombing. At an event marking the 15th anniversary of the bombing, Clinton connected it to the Tea Party. The shooting of congresswoman Gabby Giffords was pinned on Sarah Palin though the shooter had no discernible politics, justifying his violent actions with a psychotic grudge against grammar itself. The mainstream Right is held guilty even when the perpetrators are of the Left. A “climate of hate” supposedly created by right-wingers in Dallas is still commonly held to have impelled Lee Harvey Oswald, a Communist, to assassinate John F. Kennedy. The liberal conviction that conservative political views are themselves precursors of violence is so pervasive that when placed in control of the nation’s security apparatus, liberals will define opposition to abortion or immigration, or even being a troubled veteran, as making one a potential terroristic threat to civil peace.
Similarly, Trump is held responsible for the acts of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist who detested him as a “globalist,” who complained that the Trump administration hosted a “kike infestation.” Despite knowing these facts, one of the nation’s leading commentators describes him as a Trump “follower.” The killer made it quite clear that he was not a man whom Trump could talk down and soothe. He was not a man whom even the racists in the dark corners of the Internet could talk down. His killings were prefaced by a declaration that he didn’t care about “the optics”: He was telling other anti-Semites he didn’t care about how his mass murder would make them look. He reportedly told an arresting officer that “all Jews have to die.” For all Trump’s faults, this is a sentiment that does not come from the president or his allies.
Donald Trump does say intemperate and conspiratorial things. He enflames partisan acrimony and even paranoia. He has encouraged fistfights at his rallies. And he’s resisted condemning racists and anti-Semites who support him: His rise in the Republican primaries coincided with a trolling campaign — part human, part programmed — to harass Jewish journalists and public figures on social media. It was disgusting, and Trump should have been more forthright in condemning it.
But the rush to blame Trump and his supporters for “inspiring” an anti-Semite who considered Trump a pawn of the Jews is not just intemperate but unjust. There were almost certainly Trump supporters among the first responders, among the police who risked their lives to apprehend the shooter and bring him to justice. Unlike Europe, America has no empowered faction of opinion that Jews are in any way responsible for the violence anti-Semites inflict on them.
The case made against Trump is that the killer’s conspiracy overlaps with one advanced by the president — that he was taking the president “seriously” and “followed the logic of the president and his allies.” But this individual’s enmity against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was entirely the product of his own research and self-radicalization, not a message passed subliminally to him through Fox News.
This is how anti-Semitism always functions. Anti-Semitism is a remora on the fringes of politics. If an anti-Semite does not like immigration, he will say Jews are the enemies of the nation state. If an anti-Semite hates capitalism, he will borrow left-wing rhetoric about financialized economies but focus his ire on Jews for creating them. If an anti-Semite hates nationalism, she will hate Jews for founding Israel. An anti-Semite hates George Soros for being Jewish, the way anti-Semites hate Sheldon Adelson for being Jewish. Capitalist, socialist, neoliberal, neoconservative, Zionist, or globalist. Liberals usually know that the accusations of true haters are incidental and subject to revision, whereas the hatred itself is constant.
Anti-Semitism has to be confronted in America now, just as it had to be confronted in 1999 after the shooting at North Valley Jewish Community Center and the neo-Nazi shooting spree in Indiana and Illinois. As it had to be confronted after the Oklahoma City Bombing, inspired as it was, in part, by anti-Semitic literature.
Something dark is stalking American life. In the last decade we have had the largest church shooting, the largest synagogue shooting, the largest school shooting, the largest nightclub shooting, and the largest mass shooting. Somehow, American society has conjured up a cultural script in which losers and the radicalized choose to make themselves infamous by gunning down crowds of defenseless and innocent people. Online communities have glamorized mass shooters and terrorist bombers as the avant-garde of nihilism, as heroes who have swallowed the “black pill.” Along with racist radicalism, this is just as much a part of the online culture that inspired Saturday’s mass murderer.
Sensible people should have figured out not to react too quickly to moving tragedies on social media. Saturday convinced me that sensible people should avoid even reading the insta-reactions. We should have the decency to fall silent in the face of such an enormity, at least for a moment. And to leave our normal conversations and enmities, the better to free us to confront the eruption of great evil as it really is.