EDITORIAL: Hateful rhetoric helps ignite lethal actions

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Holding candles, a group of girls wait for the start of a memorial vigil at the intersection of Murray Ave. and Forbes Ave. in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, for the victims of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue where a shooter opened fire, killing multiple people and wounding others, including sevearl police officers, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Saturday’s mass shooting at a synagogue in western Pennsylvania capped a week of attacks and attempted attacks that targeted disparate groups but seem to have a common motivator: the angry, divided worldview stoked by much of today’s political rhetoric.

Eleven people were killed, and six others — including four police officers — wounded at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday morning. Condolences have poured forth, from the Jewish community in York to the pope.

The attacks followed a fatal shooting at a Kentucky grocery store Thursday that police suspect was racially motivated and an arrest Friday after a string mail bombs that appears to be politically motivated.

In each case, hatred of a specific group looks to have been lethally mixed with warped justification for violence.

That certainly reflects what is known about the man police say burst into the Tree of Life during Saturday worship services and opened fire. Robert Bowers, 46, made no secret of his hatred for Jewish people on social media. He is believed to have posted a message shortly before the shooting that read, “(Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

If “optics” is the only thing preventing hate-filled, violence-prone menaces from acting on their worst impulses, the nation is in deep trouble.

And those optics become especially warped when reinforced by fringe views. Bowers posted his threat on the social media platform Gab, which bills itself as a free-speech alternative to services such as Facebook and Twitter but has become a beacon for white nationalists, Nazis and other hateful extremists. The site not only welcomed Bowers’ anti-Semitic views and conspiracies, it likely reinforced them.

In the wake of Saturday’s deadly assault, Gab’s online hosting provider moved to shut down the account. Payment processors like PayPal severed ties with the firm. All well and good but, if history is any indicator, it won’t be long before another platform takes its place.

More:Police: Synagogue gunman said he wanted all Jews to die

More:Suspect in synagogue slayings spewed online hate for Jews

More:‘Unspeakable act of hate’: 11 killed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Besides, the problem isn’t just fringe media, it’s that fringe views and reality-averse conspiracies have spilled into general discourse. The campaign to question basic facts — from climate change to inauguration crowd sizes — has been a hallmark of the Trump administration. And it has been replicated to various degrees by conservative news outlets, broadcasters, office-seekers and elected officials.

When basic facts are in dispute, hate-fueled conspiracies have more room to flourish.

Thus, the Kentucky grocery store shooting, in which a white male shot to death an African-American man and woman but told an armed white bystander not to shoot him because “whites don’t kill whites.” Authorities, who say the assailant first tried unsuccessfully to enter a nearby black church, are investigating the shooting as a possible hate crime.

Thus, a weeklong spree of pipe-bomb mailings to prominent Democrats and CNN. Thirteen in all. The suspect, 56-year-old Florida resident Cesar Sayoc, appears to be a rabid supporter of President Donald Trump. And almost every one of his intended victims — from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to California Rep. Maxine Waters — is a frequent target of criticism from the president.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, Scott Wagner, spoke with one voice in separate statements responding to Saturday’s synagogue shooting.

“This type of violence is sickening and has no place in our society,” stated Wagner.

“These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans,” said Wolf.

It may not be who are, but it certainly who we are becoming.

Since the arrest of Sayoc, a good deal of energy and emotion have been spent in the public arena attempting to place blame.

But if hate-filled explosions of violence against specific groups are to be curtailed, the question isn’t who’s to blame. The question is who will take responsibility for helping to steer political discourse in a calmer, saner and less divisive direction.