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On Shootings in El Paso and Dayton

We write to you in a state of mourning. In the wake of a week that included not one but two mass shootings, the largest ever immigration raid in a single state resulting in the arrest of nearly 700 undocumented workers and leaving hundreds of school children without their parents, and the loss of literary titan Toni Morrison, the national mood is palpably overcast.

As the number of mass shootings accumulates, Americans have grown increasingly anesthetized to the omnipresent threat of rote carnage. The rise of white nationalism infuses an additional wrinkle to that grim prospect. Now, in addition to the possibility of becoming an incidental casualty of random violence, those of us who are visible minorities must negotiate the public sphere with the piercing awareness that we may be gunned down in cold blood for merely being who we are. The nearly unmitigated access to guns empowers the disgruntled office worker or disaffected high school student to claim human lives as blithely as he vanquishes pixelated enemies on Fortnite. But it also enables despondent white men radicalized by Trumpism to rapidly transfigure rambling digital manifestoes into analog bloodbaths. 

The United States is, of course, unique in its gun obsession, and the recent tragedies in Dayton and El Paso are undeniably part of that national culture. The ongoing political refusal to address the consequences of a crisis-ridden nation that has far more guns than people should invite the disgust of any empathy-capable individual. As of the writing of this statement, there have been 260 mass shootings in 2019. We are 218 days into the year. There have been almost 2,200 mass shootings on American soil since Sandy Hook.

But these recent tragedies in Ohio and Texas -- and the tragedies that will continue to besiege us -- are more than just the byproduct of failed gun policy. They are the direct result of an increasingly belligerent strain in our body politic. They are the harrowing extension of racism and sexism that is as American as, well, gun violence. And when we look past the shallow rhetoric that blames mental illness and video games, we get to the paroxysmal constant at the heart of many of these mass shootings: white patriarchy. 

This is not conjecture, this is taking the prefatory words and deeds of these twisted killers seriously. Patrick Crusis, the 21-year-old white male suspect in custody for the shooting, stated plainly in his manifesto that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and served as an “act of preservation.” 

He echoes Dylan Roof before him who murdered 11 African Americans who welcomed him into their sacred space. Shortly after declaring that he had to massacre them because African Americans “rape our women,” Roof shot 87-year-old Suzie Jackson 11 times. Imagine living through what you thought was the last gasps of violent white supremacy and reaching the beautiful age of 87, only to be gunned down by a vengeful lost boy hyped up on digitized hate.  Have we really come this far, only to find that we’ve arrived once again in 1919, the year of the Red Summer where hundreds of Black men and women were killed at the hands of white mobs, emboldened by the government’s complacency with their supremacist ambitions?

While he was not a Trump supporter like his El Paso counterpart, classmates recall that the Dayton shooter, 24-year-old Connor Betts, consistently espoused views about women that are distressingly simpatico with 45’s. Not content to codify his misogyny via the hit list he allegedly kept of female classmates he wanted to rape, Betts also fronted a metal band associated with a subculture called “pornogrind”, an offshoot of grindcore music known for its lyrical depiction of sexual violence. The band released albums and songs with abhorrent titles designed for maximum shock value, including “Sexual Abuse of a Teenage Corpse” and “6 Ways of Female Butchery”.  

The killings last weekend should be the end of the argument, the bright line in the sand that once and for all settles the question about what is the most serious threat to America and what should be done about it. Since 2002, the number of lives lost to the violence of the far-right is roughly equivalent to the number of lives lost to so-called Islamist radicals. As the Washington Post noted, the FBI has recently made clear that the majority of domestic terrorism threats in 2019 have involved explicit white nationalism. If we were to treat this brand of terrorism the way we treat foreign terrorism, we would undoubtedly pursue muscular and organized responses to the threat. 

We might, for instance, activate a Department of Homeland Security program to counter violent extremism by collaborating with regional organizations to pinpoint individuals who are susceptible to radicalization, or create and invoke a federal statute that makes it illegal to provide money or training to domestic terrorist groups. But access to these measures is impeded by an administration that came to power by stoking the very resentments it’s now tasked with containing.

Shortly after the events of last weekend, the President was asked how concerned he was about “the rise of white supremacy”. “I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate,” Trump responded, “whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy.” This fingers-crossed-behind-his-back repudiation is consistent with the President’s well-documented penchant for false equivalencies. Further, it’s a lightly euphemized invocation of the spurious narrative that America is under attack -- that America is being “invaded” by the sort of people who want preferential treatment. To the President’s most zealous supporters, it is the “invaders” who want their own sort of “supremacy.” This is patently untrue and, ironically, precisely the sort of dog-whistle racism that the Republican party has made its staple over the past five decades.

It would be misguided to suggest that the country’s worsening epidemic of white nationalist gun violence is reducible to any single cause. The mutually reinforcing relationship between strident opposition to gun control and investment in racial hierarchy is nonetheless a salient contributor.  The sanctity of a boundlessly permissive interpretation of the Second Amendment is directly tied to the legacy of settler colonialism, and particularly the abiding terror that subordinate groups might successfully overthrow their colonizers if not for the wide availability of firearms. As the much-ballyhooed brownification of America compounds fears of what white nationalists call a Great Replacement, support for unregulated gun access is likely to calcify further.