How do we understand why a man, armed with an automatic rifle, multiple handguns, and all-consuming hatred, would walk into a sanctuary and gun down Jews, a man who told law enforcement officers that these elderly people at prayer were “committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews.”
Hatred has been described as the human capacity to define, and then demonize or dehumanize an “other.” Antisemitism is one of its oldest and most persistent forms. It defines Jews as dangerous conspirators, plotting to harm non-Jews. Antisemitism provides haters with an explanation for what goes wrong in the world.
We don’t know everything about Robert Bowers, but it would be a good bet that when he walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh he saw mass murdering Jews as a noble act, to protect white people.
White supremacists worry that in a few decades, America will be majority non-white. Imagine the dissonance. You see yourself as superior to non-whites, yet you are somehow losing the battle for America. How can that be, that you’re losing to someone inferior? Someone has to have their thumb on the scale. That, in their view, are the Jews. That’s why people with swastikas and Confederate flags at Charlottesville last summer chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
Online, Bowers railed against Jews in general, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) — which resettles refugees and other immigrants — in particular. Jews, he reposted, are “waging a propaganda war against Western Civilization.” HIAS, he said “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.” One person with a hateful world view can cause great damage.
Pundits have pointed to the hateful nature of our political discourse, and President Trump’s tweets and statements dehumanizing immigrants and Muslims, his campaign ads tinged with antisemitic images, his ranting about “globalists” (frequently a code word for Jews), his assertion that he is a “nationalist” (rather than less racially tinged word “patriot”) and his encouragement of violence (although certainly not mass murder).
But when we try to shoehorn hateful acts into our pre-existing political lenses, what we see is often distorted. Antisemitism has been around for millennia, and hate crimes against Jews long preceded the 2016 presidential election (recall the shooting of Jewish children at the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center in 1999). We don’t know for sure, but it is possible that Trump’s claim — that a caravan of people now in Mexico bent on getting to our border are a threat to America — was Bower’s final straw, convincing him that posting online was no longer sufficient, that pulling a trigger was required.
One way to gauge the impact of hate is whether it is on the fringes (where it will always have a home), or in the mainstream. Even without the mass murder this past weekend, there were reasons for deep concern. Hate has always worked in politics; otherwise politicians wouldn’t use it (and politicians of both parties have). Antisemitism grows in an environment where hate is normalized, when people are told by leaders that some among us are a threat. It also grows when democratic institutions are under attack (such as when the president says the free press is the “enemy of the people,” or suggests that law enforcement should be loyal to the president, rather than the law).
Regardless of what led Bowers to kill Jews last Saturday, we know that the greater number of people who see the world through hateful ideologies or theologies, the greater the number who will decide that saying or posting hateful things isn’t enough, that they must be warriors and kill those Americans who they have decided pose dangers to them and their children.
We need leaders of both parties to take political risks, stop the silence or the platitudes, and object forcefully whenever other politicians try to divide people into us, who must be protected, and them, who pose danger.
Equally urgently, we need scholars to do more to help figure out what can change the political climate that is encouraging hate to grow. If hate in politics works, how do we create a disincentive for politicians using it? If we allow leaders to continue playing upon our fears and our instinct to see some among us as dangerous simply because of who they are, we can continue to expect deadly results.
Kenneth S. Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, a part of Bard College’s Human Rights Project.