Mass Shootings: The Consequences of Playing with Fire
The United States is no stranger to the politics of hate. Even the most basic study of U.S. history reveals that the country has a long history of issues related to race, immigration, and integration. The U.S. is a country of immigrants, but each wave of new citizens has rocked American society in its own way—all have faced bigotry. Freed slaves, in particular, felt this hatred as states passed laws that purposefully stripped them of every aspect of citizenship they had gained, and White supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan mercilessly hounded them. Importantly, much of that hatred was stoked for political gain.
For example, the KKK used hatred for African Americans and Irish immigrants to put its members in power across former Confederate states in the South. The result of this racist rhetoric was the era of lynching: countless hangings of African Americans carried out by mobs of White Americans. Considering their history, you would think that Americans would be more sensitive to the language of hatred. They should be aware of what happens when you paint a group of people as the enemy. Nonetheless, it is becoming increasingly apparent that aspects of American media and politics refuse to learn this lesson—particularly on those on right side of the political spectrum.
To be clear, I am not saying that right-wing media and politicians are purposefully trying to get people killed. Hateful, fear-inducing messaging is being spread for political and financial gain. Today, immigration from the Eastern and Southern hemisphere has made some Americans uneasy about the changing demographics, just as previous generations have felt when a new waves of immigrants made the U.S. their home.
This uneasiness, however, is being exploited. Uneasy people watch television and click articles that confirm their fear—tailor your product towards this market and you can make a lot of money. Politicians that adopt anti-immigration stances reap electoral benefits from this anxiety. Former President Richard Nixon did so by appealing to anti-Black sentiment in the South, and now President Donald Trump is doing it by stirring fears of immigrants from Latin America and the Muslim world.
But these strategies are dangerous. They are playing with fire, and if you’re not careful with fire, it can easily grow out of control. Here are some headlines from right-wing news media, Fox News and Breitbart: “Business Elites Join Transgender Push Against Trump”; “Cuba First: Barak Obama Says Florida Democrats Will Make Cuba Great Again”; “Migration Lawyers Recruit Caravan Migrants to Defeat Trump’s Asylum Reform”; “Here’s Why Trump’s Crackdown on Illegal Immigration Protects All Americans”. Clearly, there’s a trend.
Fox News is one of the highest rated cable news stations on American television. Breitbart articles receive millions of views online. As people tend to get their news from only a few sources that align with their preconceived views, headlines like these are sometimes the only headlines people see. When politicians adopt this rhetoric in public forums, people rally around them. Furthermore, the mainstreaming of these messages has emboldened some of the nastiest elements of American society. White supremacists—who have always existed but, until recently, had been marginalised—have come back out of the woodwork, marching openly in the streets of Charlottesville while chanting “Jews will not replace us.” This would not have happened if they did not feel like their ideas had become acceptable.
When this kind of language is the norm—when immigrants and “outsiders” (whatever that means) are constantly demonised—along with the proliferation of guns in the U.S., is it any surprise that someone committed a mass-shooting in a dominantly African-American church? When feminists and LGBTQ people are painted as a threat to the moral fabric of the nation, is it a really a surprise that someone drove to a campus and opened fire because women won’t have sex with him or that another carried out a massacre at a gay nightclub?
The ideas that prompt people to commit these horrific acts didn’t come from nowhere. These messages are only a click away, and they are becoming increasingly mainstream.
Recently, a man opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding many others. The man was obsessed with right-wing conspiracy theories. His posts online show that he was enraged about the “caravan of migrants” from Central America that is slowly making its way to the U.S. border—a caravan that Trump has labelled an “invasion” and containing “unknown Middle Easterners” in a clear appeal to the anti-immigration feelings of his base. The shooter was convinced that the caravan was all a part of a Jewish plot to replace White people with Muslims and Latin Americans—a common conspiracy in White nationalist circles. This, and all the other incidents like this, are the direct result of media and politicians tapping into a population’s feelings of fear and insecurity and directing it at a group for political and financial gain.
We should not think that we are immune from this trend here in Canada. Our own Toronto Sun published a column that the asylum seekers currently put up in a hotel in the GTA were sacrificing goats in their bathtubs. Around the same time, Faith Goldy, a mayoral candidate in the latest Toronto election, gave a speech in front of that hotel, declaring that the asylum seekers were a security threat. A few days later, a firebomb was found in the hotel. Luckily, no one was injured, but people absolutely were injured when a man in Québec City opened fire at a mosque. He was obsessed with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant messaging. This shows that messages of hate have consequences no matter where you go. People who use these tactics are playing with fire, and if you play with fire for too long, people get burned.