How blame subsumed fear in America
Why aren't we afraid anymore? The only emotion of which there has not been a public surfeit in a week that began with explosive devices addressed to Bill and Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats and ended with 11 people dead at a synagogue in Pittsburgh is fear.
One reason is that the bombing suspect does not seem to have been very good at what he was doing. His bombs were crude weapons, some of them perhaps incapable of detonating. If one of them had made it past the Secret Service or private security and actually blown up, goodness knows where we would be now.
I'd like to think that if one or more of his targets had been injured or killed, we would be having a different sort of national conversation. But the response to Saturday's attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue — where the worst did happen — suggests the truth is much darker: that no matter what happened we would be where we are now, a few days into a deflating spectacle that has shown everyone from President Trump to various CNN anchors to right-wing commentators and hangers-on in the worst possible light.
The immediate reaction to the bomb plot from the media was unequivocal: This is President Trump's fault. What petulant nonsense. (This is the same thing we heard a few months ago when a man in Annapolis, Maryland, shot at the offices of the Capital Gazette. It turned out that the shooter had brought a defamation suit against the paper years earlier.) By Friday, it had become clear that the suspect in these attempted bombings, while obsessed with the president, was also a lunatic who had threatened to blow up a local power plant after receiving a shut-off notice all the way back in 2002. He has been arrested for assault, larceny, drug possession, and many other crimes. He first registered to vote in 2016, when he was 54 years old. At the time of his arrest he was living in his van after being kicked out of his parents' house. He is about as typical of the GOP activist base as Theodore John Kaczynski is of Harvard alumni.
It is also difficult for me to take seriously the idea that President Trump is any meaningful sense responsible for the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, the deadliest attack of its kind in the history of this country. The suspect is an anti-Semitic madman who screamed "All Jews must die" as he entered the building. In 2016, he did not vote for Trump, whom he has dismissed as "surrounded by kikes."
The Trump-era rise in anti-Semitic discourse and violence is undeniable. But the reality of a revivified anti-Semitism in the United States and Western Europe has been apparent for much longer than Trump's short presidency. Twelve years before members of the so-called alt-right began placing the names of prominent Jews in parentheses on Twitter, one left-wing journalist was compiling a list of prominent neoconservatives and putting black marks beside the names of those who were Jewish. And the line between good-faith criticism of Israeli policy and anti-Semitism is crossed every day by activists in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Today's anti-Semitism is not an exclusively right- or left-wing phenomenon. As Mark Strauss observed 15 years ago in Foreign Policy, opponents of globalization on both the right and the left are resorting to "familiar scapegoats" in their criticism of vaguely defined "outside forces" whom they consider the architects of the post-Cold War social and economic order. While it is true that many people who promote anti-Jewish conspiracy theories see Trump as their political savior, plenty of others have given their loyalty in recent years to Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul or Jeremy Corbyn.
Meanwhile, the day after the first bomb arrived at the home of George Soros, The New York Times ran a lurid piece of fan fiction about the possibility of Trump's assassination. Would it be the writer's fault or that of anyone at the paper if somebody fires a shot at the president next week? Did anyone think of blaming Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats who claimed that millions of Americans would die horrifying deaths if the Affordable Care Act were repealed or modified when a left-wing activist shot House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and attempted to gun down the rest of the Republican leadership contingent during a baseball practice last year? Eric Holder talking about kicking the other side, Joe Biden publicly fantasizing about assaulting a presidential candidate, the enjoyable ravings of Michael Avenatti: This is rhetoric that sensible adults are capable of hearing without going out and attempting to hurt people. The same is true of the president's tweets.
Even more nonsense has emerged from the fringes of the right-wing online commentariat and (where else?) the White House itself. It was suggested that, given the timing of the attempted bombings less than two weeks before the midterm elections, the whole thing was too good to be true, an obvious ploy by ACORN or Antifa or the Clackamas County Democratic Women's Association to steal the election from Republicans. Trump's response to the shootings in Pittsburgh was even worse. "This is a case where if they had an armed guard inside they may have been able to stop him immediately, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him maybe," he told reporters on Saturday only hours after the attack. The implication here that anyone who is a victim of gun violence has only him or herself to blame for not being armed is an assault on common sense, decency, and civilization itself. This is how people live in war zones, not in Pittsburgh.
The stupidity runs in all directions.
Our divisions are older than this presidency or the 2016 election. So is the numbness in the face of violence that makes it possible. But it wasn't always like this.
It is almost impossible now to conjure up the peculiar atmosphere of dread that millions of us felt in the months following September 11, 2001. After a week there were the anthrax letters, a crime whose perpetrator remains unknown. Barely a year later John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo went on their shooting spree in the D.C. metro area. A color-coded system of terrorist alerts was a permanent feature of news coverage for years. At the time, so many of us were viscerally afraid.
Since then, we have watched, and our fear has receded. The 16-year-old boy who killed nine people before taking his own life at an Indian reservation in Red Lake, Minnesota. The man who shot five Amish schoolgirls. The West Virginia sniper. Virginia Tech. The massacre on Seattle's Capitol Hill. The Vietnamese immigrant who killed 13 people at a government office in Binghamton, New York. The senior citizen in Knoxville who opened fire inside a Unitarian Universalist church building because of "all liberals should be killed because they were ruining the country." Aurora. Sandy Hook. The Wisconsin Sikh temple. Washington Navy Yard. Charleston. The shoe bomb and the dirty bomb, the Brooklyn Bridge bomb, the Times Square bomb, the Boston bombs. Now the manila envelopes and the white van with the stickers and Tree of Life. All of it a hideous blur.
What happened? The terror that kept children awake at night and housewives opening their mail with dish gloves became part of the ambience of daily life. The multiplication of episodes was incidental to the exponentiation of coverage. We saw and talked about and mostly forgot everything. Children calmly take part in "active shooter" drills and cut themselves because their Instagram posts don't get enough likes. MAGA hat wearers shout at immigrants, the iPhone footage is seen by millions, they lose their jobs. AR-15 enthusiasts recommend custom stocks in online forums. A boy who turned the hallways of his school into an ocean of blood screams that he is possessed. Two middle-schoolers in Florida plan to carve up their classmates with pizza cutters and eat their flesh. It is all of a piece.
The hatred and violence on view every day are a fact of American life. We care more about gotchas and tone-policing and ferreting out of double-standards than we do about death. President Trump is not univocally responsible for it. We all are.