OPINION — “We Support our Muslim Brothers and Sisters.” “Love Will Win, Hate Will Lose.” “Terrorism Has No Religion.” The Charlotte, North Carolina, Muslim community invited all to join in a United for Christchurch, New Zealand, vigil in an uptown park on Sunday afternoon, and encouraged those who came to mourn and stand in solidarity to bring posters with supportive messages.
People of all races, ages and faiths — several hundred of them — listened to remarks of healing and hope and pleas for understanding from local imams. “Good people of this country, this world, stand with us,” said Sheikh Muhammad Khan of the Islamic Center of Charlotte. All bowed their heads in prayer.
That is America, where domestic terrorist attacks, propelled by white supremacy, are on the rise, where leaders nonetheless ignore the national and global reach of this toxic movement. Unbelievably, shooting up places of worship is now a separate and growing category, from a Sikh temple in Wisconsin to a Christian church in Charleston, South Carolina, to a synagogue in Pittsburgh to mosques in New Zealand — and that doesn’t include all that would qualify.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for moving past the shock and sorrow to act as moral as well as political leader. “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand — they may even be refugees here,” Ardern said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.” She highlighted the lives of the victims and refused to utter the name of the man whose shooting rampage left 50 dead and many wounded.
Her words were in sharp contrast to the president of the United States, in his answer to a reporter who asked if he thought the attack was evidence of a growing global white nationalist threat. “I don’t really,” Trump said. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems, I guess.”
What else could he say, after past statements have made clear his feelings about Islam, Muslim-Americans and asylum seekers? As a candidate, Trump said, “I think Islam hates us” and called for a “shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. Recently he defended Jeanine Pirro when she did not appear on her Fox News program after questioning if the wearing of a hijab by Rep. Ilhan Omar was “antithetical” to the U.S. Constitution.
Ardern wore a head covering as she delivered her condolences and support for Muslim community members in New Zealand.
The shooter in New Zealand, who — make no mistake — alone is responsible for the carnage he intentionally broadcast for all to see, mentioned Trump in his manifesto of hate, calling him a symbol “of renewed white identity and common purpose.”
The 74-page screed name-checked white supremacist terrorists, members of the unholy world-wide alliance joined together by hate and social media: Dylann Roof, the gunman who murdered nine parishioners of “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who targeted those he thought were facilitating a “Muslim invasion” of Norway.
After Trump’s muted response, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said on Sunday shows: “The president is not a white supremacist. I’m not sure how many times we have to say that.”
Trump did not step into the role of moral leader, delivering a message of support for America’s Muslims, as President George W. Bush did when, days after the 9/11 attacks, he visited a Washington mosque to denounce Islamophobia. Instead, the current president quickly moved on to direct his anger and emotion toward the late Sen. John McCain, a rerun of “Saturday Night Live” and others as he painted himself as the victim.
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In a White House Rose Garden press conference this week, it was a mutual admiration society between Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, who proudly owns his nickname as the “Trump of the Tropics” and was elected despite or because of crude rhetoric about women, the LGBT community, and his country’s black and indigenous citizens.
Both frame their harsh racist and sexist outbursts as refreshing relief from political correctness, and both label press reporting that displeases them as “fake news.”
As usual, the danger is in what come next, as citizens vulnerable to attacks by white supremacist domestic terrorists look to their leaders for protection and see indifference rather than urgency, the opposite of reactions in cases of shootings by individuals who happen to be Muslim.
Despite the fact that white supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed more people than any other category of domestic extremism since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement says it has been caught unprepared to deal with the problem, according to a report in The New York Times. And there are instances of members of law enforcement agencies and the military themselves being involved in white nationalist groups.
In 2009, during the Obama administration, when a Department of Homeland Security report warned of the dangers of increased activity by right-wing groups — in part because of a weak economy and the election of the country’s first African-American president — Republicans called it an attack on conservatives and veterans. Secretary Janet Napolitano apologized, the report was withdrawn and interest in investigating that threat moved far into the background.
The Trump administration has siphoned money out of the programs that continued to study and fight domestic terrorism, increasingly leaving it up to the American people to fill in the leadership and empathy gap.
On Sunday, I met many of those people. Bob Henderson, senior minister of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, told of that day’s service, planned before New Zealand, with an imam as a guest and a choir that sung a Muslim prayer. Vivian Lord, social justice team leader at Piedmont Unitarian Universalist Church, said, “We’re getting nothing anymore from the person who has been identified as our president.” She said she hoped to fill that gap, to fight “global depersonalization, hatred and anger.”
At the gathering, the first thing I noticed were the children, clambering over the giant jungle gym, laughing and seemingly oblivious to the seriousness of the event that brought them to the park.
And then I checked out the police presence, heavy enough to be noticed by anyone who saw the gathering as a target.
That, too, is America, the new normal, a country short of moral leadership filled by determined citizens, with resolve — and caution.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.