“We have an epidemic of hate in this country,” declared Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar last week, bravely stating the obvious in the wake of the horrific mass killing in her hometown of El Paso, in which 22 innocent people lost their lives to a 21-year-old shooter who drove some 650 miles to kill “Mexicans.” Within 13 hours of that shooting, another young white man allegedly obsessed with “violent ideologies” had murdered nine more people and wounded three dozen. Another 55 people were shot in Chicago that same weekend, of whom died; and the weekend before, mass shootings in Brooklyn, NY, and Gilroy, California, killed four and wounded 23. The FBI has opened a domestic terrorism investigation of the Gilroy shooter, who had a hit list of religious institutions, federal buildings, and political party offices. There have been 253 mass shootings so far in 2019.
It’s guns, yes, and also it’s hate — perhaps long latent, now raging through our government and popular culture like a drug-resistant virus, promulgated most fervently and cynically out of America’s White House by Patient Zero, the man at the top.
Even as the dirge of funerals unfurled, Immigration and Customs Enforcement staged a showy arrest of 680 undocumented poultry workers in plants outside of Jackson, Mississippi. The ICE raids had the intended effect of terrifying hundreds of young children and separating them from their parents, with no arrangements for their care.
And at America’s southern border, immigrant children — even deaf, dumb, and blind children — continue to be torn without explanation from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms and detained as prisoners for months at a time. After a federal judge ordered the government to reunite the more than 3,600 children that federal agents had illegally separated from their parents, yet another 911 families were cruelly sundered and incarcerated.
This is hate with a vengeance — literally. Powerful enough to compel the arms of the state — thousands of good Americans in border protection, homeland security, and law enforcement roles who know better — to exhibit utter contempt for a federal judge, the rule of law, the health of vulnerable children, and fundamental human rights.
This virulent epidemic, though, is but symptomatic of a more chronic, epigenetic condition.
Further north, more than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, half of those, sexual violence. On some reservations, indigenous women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average. Black women die in childbirth up to 12 times as often as white women in major American cities, due to poverty-related lack of access to quality care and implicit bias. Unarmed black men are four times as likely to be shot and killed as white men, and black men are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated. Overt discrimination against gay, bisexual, and transgender communities has taken on new ferocity, as has the assembly-line passage in state legislatures of anti-women, anti-family, anti-poor anti-abortion bills.
The late great weaver of worlds Toni Morrison knew intimately the toxic hate coursing through America’s bloodstream. In her 1993 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she gave voice to fearsome words that could have been uttered this very week, had we a witness who shares her wisdom, vision, and poetic genius:
There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Of course, America has no monopoly on hate in today’s world. Cruelty seems to abound, wherever one turns. Across the globe, resource scarcity, rampant environmental destruction, and income inequality have resulted in violent conflict, unprecedented displacement, and massive human rights violations. Venezuela, Brazil, Syria, Turkey, Hungary, Russia, China, and the Philippines can now boast the most egregious haters, with other countries fast catching up, their leaders offering frighteningly normalized declamations of xenophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, regularly coupled with the deeply cynical insinuation that the leaders’ target audiences have been being deprived or threatened, followed by the sinister survivalist conclusion that it’s “us or them.”
America, though, as so many of us, over generations, have allowed ourselves to believe, has at least aspired to be different. And it’s not just us — people around the world have long looked to America — at least, to the idea of America, of our values, our laws, our democracy — as a model, a haven, a beacon.
This was true for 13-year-old Ana Sofia Valverde, a child in Ciudad Juarez, El Paso’s twin city, who spoke to NPR at the funeral of her aunt Elsa Mendoza Marquez, an elementary school principal and dual Mexican American citizen shot to death by the El Paso Walmart hater. Ana Sofia used to dream of moving to the U.S., but her aunt’s murder there, and Trump’s hate-filled threats toward immigrants and Central Americans, have given her second thoughts. The thing that makes her the saddest, the child told NPR, is that Americans “continue to support him.”
So what will stop the epidemic?
Short of a vaccine to inoculate against hate, this public health emergency demands a concerted, focused response.
First, we must call out and shun the haters, their cheerleaders, and those who stand silently by, especially those in positions of power, for enabling and then winking at these massacres which, under international law, constitute crimes against humanity.
Second, we must shut down the near-instant universal access to the weapons of war that make hate so terribly lethal.
Then, we must reach out to those who’ve been told they’re not welcome and reassure them that there is a place for all in America, with dignity and under law.
And finally, we must look into our own hearts, free ourselves from the shackles of prejudice, and realize that great societies are open societies that recognize the light and the promise in each of us.
This is hard, it’s true. But it’s doable. Just ask residents of the bilingual, binational, multicultural region encompassing El Paso and Juarez these last 350 years.
“We are a community of love,” El Paso resident and Texas State Employees Union President Judy Lugo told a New York Times reporter the day our Hater-in-Chief hightailed it to her grieving city to stage a photo op. “We are a community of family.”
We must now carry with us, and be roused to action by the voices of these brave women. Vigilant as we heed Toni Morrison’s warning, agonized by Ana Sofia’s crushing disillusionment, and reminded by Ms. Lugo’s affirmation that “we are a community of love” and “family,” we must stop the poisonous contagion that now threatens to consume us. We must rise now, as a community and as a nation, to repudiate the hate, condemn and punish the violence, strive to heal the divides and the trauma, and reclaim our humanity.
Our very soul — the promise that is America — depends on it.