The past week has not been an easy one.
In the last few days, pipe bombs packed with glass shards were mailed to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump. Two black shoppers were killed at a Kentucky Kroger after the white shooter failed to gain entry to a historic black church. And, as if the foundations of America were not already shaken, a man forced his way into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, shouted “all Jews must die,” and murdered eleven worshippers.
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Musing on the origins of human hatred is a fruitless task, but it doesn’t take much to draw a connection between the targeting of George Soros — in all his dog whistling glory — and the events in Pittsburgh. It is a connection many in this country refuse to make. Because critics, historically black churches and synagogues are only ever targeted for one reason: to send a broader message. And that message is fear.
And what, exactly, do we call acts of violence within our country, designed to send a broader ideological message? Most Americans would say “terrorism.” The news parsed it out in careful words like “extremism,” “hatred” and “right-wing violence.” Trump, somewhat predictably, chose “anger” — and then turned the blame on the media.
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What happened in Pittsburgh was, by most definitions, domestic terrorism. What made the killing of eleven Jews in their place of worship terrorism, and not merely a hate crime, were the words of the shooter himself — “All Jews must die,” “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k*** infestation,” and “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
The FBI defines domestic terrorism as something that is “perpetrated by individuals … inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature.”
The Pittsburgh shooter checks off almost all those boxes. And yet, prosecutors did not pursue domestic terrorism charges against him. Not because they didn’t want to — though that’s debatable — but because an applicable federal statute for domestic terrorism doesn’t exist.
In the post-9/11 world, the legal intricacies of domestic terrorism became muddled. Fueled by the experience of 9/11, domestic terrorism policy focused on countering foreign terrorism within our own borders — completely overlooking extremist groups long-established in the U.S., who soaked up the waves of Islamophobia greedily. When the government got around to addressing radical “homegrown” terrorism, a 2009 report on the growing threat of right-wing extremism prompted outcry, especially from conservatives.
Many argue the lack of a legal statute matters little if hate crimes and murder charges carry the same weight — or, in the Pittsburgh case, the death penalty. Often, in cases such as those of Dylann Roof and James Alex Fields Jr., who killed a protestor with his car in Charlottesville, hate crime charges are used as a substitute for an applicable domestic terrorism charge. Weapon and murder charges fill up the rest, all but guaranteeing that the perpetrator will never see daylight again.
But putting murderers away for the rest of their lives isn’t the same thing as putting away a terrorist. Murderers tend to kill in isolated, individual events for personal motives. Terrorists aren’t disconnected from the greater picture, even if they only kill once. Far from it. They are inextricable from their ideology — and in the case of radical, extremist anti-Semitism, a vast network exists online to instill and reinforce its message.
By labeling acts of terrorism against Jews and other minorities as hate crimes, we isolate the event — and the responsibility. We ignore the historic ties of anti-Semitism to national discontent. We pretend the cells of white supremacists and neo-Nazis online are nothing more than a myth — instead of an intricate, online network that can mobilize members to carry torches, march through streets and murder anyone who opposes them.
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An applicable federal statute might not change much of a domestic terrorist’s sentence. But it puts a name to dozens of attacks and hate crimes that have fallen through the cracks. It identifies a trend that has always been there, though we were unwilling to look it in the eye and call it by its true name: terrorism.
In a country fascinated by coverage of ISIS, its radicalization via the internet and social media, and its threat to our way of life, it seems strange that we would overlook a potent threat right under our nose. But denying the strength and support of white supremacy is old hat for America — and now, it seems, for our President and his supporters.
So what exactly was Pittsburgh, President Trump? A tragedy? Then why do we keep seeing Pittsburgh across our country? What were Charleston and Charlottesville? What was the Sikh Temple Shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, except the manifestation of a hatred and violence so potent, it has taken more lives than any other ideology in the years since 9/11?
Call acts of white supremacy, white nationalism, and neo-Nazism what they are — part of a much larger, complex picture. Labeling them anything else does more than just a disservice to minorities — it spares a system that has taken lives and abdicated responsibility for decades.
Julia Brunson ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history.