Six ideas to help move past hate, divisiveness, and tragedy

What’s America coming to? Just yesterday we were shocked by the horrific massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue that was allegedly perpetrated by Robert Bowers, a person whose anti-Semitism was so virulent and pervasive that, according to Kelli Weill of the Daily Beast, he “hated Trump – for not hating Jews enough.” Earlier this week we were told that the suspect who targeted prominent Democrats with mail bombs was “filled with right-wing rage.” In 2017, a “left wing activist” shot and almost killed Rep. Steve Scalise, the Republican House Majority Whip.

Are Americans entering into some new and unprecedented age of hate and divisiveness?

Sadly, America has seen these vices before. During the 1950s and ‘60s hatred was rife in many parts of the country which is why the Civil Rights Memorial honors “41 people who died in the struggle for the equal and integrated treatment of all people, regardless of race, during the 1954-1968 civil rights movement in the United States.”

Divisiveness brought about by the Vietnam War also led to violence. The New York Times cites a study that shows fromJanuary 1969 to October 1970, there were about 370 bombings…in New York, an average of more than one every other day.” Time Magazine says that in a “single eighteen-month period during 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an amazing 2,500 bombings on American soil, almost five a day.”

Today, the rapid capture of the suspected killer in the Pittsburgh synagogue case allows us to know that at least one hate-filled person has been removed from our midst. Fortunately, the mail bomb suspect was likewise quickly taken into custody, and security officials intercepted his homicidal devices before anyone was hurt.

Yet it remains true that in a nation of 325 million people, there are always bound to be some extremists – not to mention the mentally deranged – who resort to violence be it characterized as a “hate crime” or as “terrorism.” Not all of them will be physically or mentally able to actually cause harm, but what we need to be concerned about today is that small numbers of them – or even individuals – could represent a far greater threat than in the past.

In 2016, columnist Thomas Friedman shared insight on that as he reflected on then-President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima. Friedman wrote that because of technological developments, we are now “entering a world where small groups — maybe even soon a single super-empowered person — will be able to kill all of us.” A similarly disturbing prediction is reflected in Bruce Schneier’s new book, Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World where he discusses how our linked ‘smart’ devices are creating enormous vulnerabilities that could be exploited by a malicious actor to create a catastrophe.

So what to do?  Here are a few suggestions as to the way ahead:

1) Leaders need to denounce all hatred and divisiveness. Trump got it right when he said of the Pittsburgh shooting: “This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It’s an assault on humanity. It will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from the world.” Likewise, former President Obama also was right when he said: “We grieve for the Americans murdered in Pittsburgh. All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love, or pray differently.” Everyone needs to join their condemnations of hatred, prejudice, and divisiveness. 

2) People across the political spectrum must dampen their polarizing rhetoric as it is damaging our society. Yes, we should have forthright discussions of ideas and policies, but no one should be advocating incivility, let alone violence. Let’s remember that even today civil dialogue and debate can still occur between political opponents. Consider this encouraging story from last Friday in the Washington Times:

North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and her GOP challenger Rep. Kevin Cramer kicked off their final debate ahead of the November midterm Thursday, agreeing on the need for more civility in American politics following the arrest of a pro-Trump bomber [Cesar Sayoc] earlier in the day.”

Both agreed that “no one is to blame other than Sayoc for his actions.” The Times also said Senator Heitkamp recalled Rep. Scalise speaking in the aftermath of his shooting by what the Times described as “a left-wing partisan.” She said Scalise “never once mentioned Democratic politics.” She added: “Looking at that as an example, the message couldn’t be clearer we all need to quit blaming. There is only one person responsible here [Sayoc].”  So, yes, our better selves can emerge.

3) We mustn’t take counsel of our fears. It can happen: a recent article contends that “[s]eventeen years after 9/11, Muslims are still ‘presumed guilty’” by many Americans. Ironically, a Pew Research Center poll that found that “[a]lthough both Muslim Americans and the U.S. public as a whole overwhelmingly reject violence against civilians, Muslims are more likely to say such actions can never be justified.”

Perhaps even more importantly, while there are about 17,000 murders each year in the U.S., the annual death toll from “from Islamist-linked terrorism” has averaged just six per year since 2001. Although “hate crimes” are still relatively rare, they have increased in our ten largest cities for the past four years. That said, just a few weeks ago the New York Times noted that overall “[v]iolent crime in the United States decreased slightly in 2017, after a troubling rise the previous two years.”

For technical reasons, domestic actors without a foreign connection (as in these recent cases) may be accused of hate crimes but are rarely charged as “terrorism,” despite their extreme views. Still, terrorism obviously exists, but the reassuring news is that last August University of Maryland analysts reported a global decline of both terrorist incidents and deaths, and last March researchers concluded that the “an American’s yearly chance of being killed in the United States by a terrorist of any stripe stands at about 1 in 40 million” since 2001. President Obama frequently said – somewhat insensitively but not inaccurately – that more Americans die slipping in bathtubs than at the hands of terrorists.

4) We need to make fact-driven decisions, not emotional ones. Unfortunately, because firearms were used in the Pittsburgh killings, the highly-contentious gun control debate will likely be revived. While more Americans than ever support stricter gun controls, there is no clear relationship between strict gun control legislation and homicide or violent crime rates.” Despite all the understandable concern about guns after school shootings in Parkland, FL, and elsewhere, the reality is that the statistical likelihood of any given public school student being killed by a gun, in school, on any given day since 1999 was roughly 1 in 614,000,000.” Again, the point is that in the aftershock of terrible events, it’s especially important that we look at the evidence dispassionately and fairly.

5) We need to think sensibly about the tradeoffs between civil liberties and security that inevitably arise in these situations. According to CNN, law enforcement used “DNA, fingerprints and pings from a cell phone tower” to find Sayoc, the accused bomber. In addition, investigators combed “through social media posts of Sayoc and began surveilling him.” But many people – to include the judiciary – are becoming increasingly uneasy about government employing various scientific and technological tools that can intrude upon privacy, so it isn’t clear that the kinds of things that helped secure Sayoc so quickly will be readily available to police in the future.

Just last summer, for example, the Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States held that a subpoena would no longer suffice to obtain the kind of cell phone information used in the Sayoc case, if investigators wanted more than seven days’ worth of data. Given increasing public awareness of law enforcement’s easy access to DNA information in the hands of ancestry and genealogy companies, criticism of the investigatory use of such highly-personal information could grow. Even the use of fingerprints is being questioned.

Regarding surveillance, the American Civil Liberties Union says the use of public video surveillance “by police and other public security officials is particularly troubling in a democratic society,” and adds that it is “in danger of evolving into a surveillance monster.” And let’s not forget that law enforcement is currently locked out of between 1,000 and 2,000 encrypted devices thought to be connected with crimes, something many privacy advocates applaud. Finally, are we comfortable with government investigators combing through non-public social media posts?

Limiting law enforcement’s access to technology-produced evidence will certainly enhance civil liberties, but are Americans ready to accept the cost?   The Pew Research Center reported in 2016:

Events have had a major impact on public attitudes on [civil liberties]. Terrorist attacks generate increased anxieties. For instance, the San Bernardino and Paris shootings in late 2015 had a striking impact. A Pew Research Center survey in December found that 56% of Americans were more concerned that the government’s anti-terror policies have not gone far enough to protect the country, compared with 28% who expressed concern that the policies have gone too far in restricting the average person’s civil liberties.

So, our reaction to recent events needs to be tempered and thoughtful, and not simply reactionary. No matter how draconian, no society can guarantee perfect security. We need a considered national dialogue to make sure we get the balance of security and civil liberties right.

6) Finally, we cannot allow ourselves to get cynical about America’s future. Despite the recent horror, there are still plenty of good-news stories in America. Indeed, last June the Gallup poll reported that Americans’ satisfaction with “the way things are going in the United States today…has now topped 35% three times this year — a level reached only three times in the previous 12 years.” Gallup also tells us that Americans confidence in their institutions “edged up in 2017,” and “is holding steady in 2018.” Furthermore, the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest in almost 50 years, and Reuters reported a week ago that the “U.S. economy sits atop of the World Economic Forum’s annual global competitiveness survey for the first time since the 2007-2009 financial crisis.” And there are other positive trends around the world.

In any event, giving up on America isn’t an option. It’s at times like this that it may be worth recalling what Field Marshall Lord Wavell – one of Britain’s greatest World War II commanders – said in 1939:

[T]he first and true function of the leader [is] never to think the battle or the cause is lost. The Romans put up a statute to the general who saved them in one of Rome’s darkest hours, with this inscription: “Because he did not despair of the Republic.”

And there’s more work ahead

Other steps are surely needed, including some more definitive work in mental health, diagnosis, and treatment, but educating ourselves with facts, denouncing vitriol, and being grateful are good starts.

America has a lot of work to do, and it won’t be easy. We need to pour our anger and grief into fixing the things that have divided us, and work together to end the hatred that produces killing rage. Doing so may be the best way to pay tribute to those who have suffered so greatly this past week.

As we like to say on Lawfire, check the facts, assess the arguments, and decide issues for yourself!






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