The carnage unleashed by Patrick Crusius in El Paso and Connor Betts in Dayton over the weekend is almost too horrific to contemplate—and certainly too ghastly and dispiriting for mere words. We recoil at the thought of those bloody scenes, with mangled bodies and screams of fear, pain, and anguish filling the air. We go limp inside in regard for the loved ones and friends who must grapple with such horrendous losses and senseless evil. It is a moment to contemplate the complexities of the human condition and their impact on personal and civic life.
It is probably natural for many, including many prominent thinkers and commentators, to seek the simple answer—the villain involved or the single societal problem that, if adequately addressed, would curtail such inhumane malevolence. It is reassuring to think that there is, in fact, a solution to this phenomenon of senseless mass killing, which is rising to the level of genuine national crisis.
Unfortunately, there are no simple answers for why this is happening or what can be done about it. But there are plenty of questions. Why has this become a growing phenomenon in relatively recent times? Why does it seem to happen in America more often than in other industrial countries? What is the role of social media, video games, and the brutality of the popular culture? What about the decline of so-called mediating institutions in America, such as churches, social groups, charitable organizations, civic structures, and business groups? What significance should be attributed to the breakdown of the family? To the increasingly atomistic nature of the American culture?
Such questions suggest the complexity and hence the difficulty of the matter. Yet a cursory look at some of the responses since the weekend show that many prefer to latch on to simple explanations as a way perhaps of placating their anxiety—and, in some instances, of leveraging the tragedies for political purposes.
Begin with the incendiary issue of guns. Within the context of the Supreme Court’s Heller ruling, which affirmed an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, it is difficult to see how curtailing the acquisition and ownership of guns would significantly diminish such killing sprees. True, Heller said governments can regulate gun sales and gun ownership within certain limits, but the question is whether such regulatory actions could have reduced the violence perpetrated in El Paso and Dayton.
There is widespread support in the country for stricter laws on firearm sales and ownership. The Democratic House responded earlier this year by passing measures that would, first, require background checks for all gun sales and most gun transfers, including those by private sellers that are not federally licensed; and, second, extend the time for governments to conduct such background checks.
Many Democrats want the Senate to speed up action on that legislation, and perhaps it should. So far, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has refused to take it to the floor. What kind of impact such laws could have remains speculative. There are more guns than people in America. That is one reason the relatively strict firearm laws in Chicago have hardly stopped the gun violence in that city. Another reason is that there will always be killers in our midst, and a sick person with evil intent can find a gun. So pass the bills—but with an understanding that the impact will be limited, perhaps even imperceptible.
Then there is the perfidious notion that President Trump’s rhetoric on the immigration issue somehow drove Patrick Crusius to his killing frenzy. All the old accusations were trotted out in a torrent of political invective: Trump bears direct responsibility for the El Paso carnage. Invariably the words racist, xenophobe, demagogue, white nationalist, white supremacist, and Hitlerian were used to describe the president’s speech and behavior. As the Progressive Democrats of America put it, Trump’s own finger was on Crusius’s AK-47. New Jersey’s Senator Cory Booker held Trump directly “responsible” for the El Paso slaughter.
There’s something unseemly about politicians rushing to exploit mass killings in order to destroy a presidency. And there can be no mistake about the intention. As Pat Buchanan pointed out in this space yesterday, the savagery of the attacks on Trump almost renders impeachment action obligatory. If Trump is as bad—even evil—as these people say, any hesitation on impeachment would constitute a dereliction of duty.
But then what is the evidence that Crusius was motivated by Trump’s restrictionist rhetoric on immigration? That, absent such rhetorical flights, he would have demurred from his evil plot? There is none.
Meanwhile, the Dayton killer, Connor Betts, declared himself a “pro-Satan leftist,” who hated Trump and wanted socialism under an Elizabeth Warren presidency. Do we think that Warren’s brand of democratic socialism somehow induced Betts to undertake his ghastly deed? Of course not.
A revealing aspect of the attacks on Trump is the extent to which the attackers refuse to acknowledge any underlying issue involved. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke scored the president for “warning of an invasion at our border,” as if that constitutes evidence of his perfidy. In fact, there is an invasion at our border. With at least 11 million illegal immigrants in the country (and probably many more; nobody knows the number), and the proportion of foreign-born people at or near the highest percentage in our history, we have an immigration issue in America. This poses legitimate concerns about the difficulties of assimilation. Those concerns contributed, more than any other issue, to Trump’s 2016 presidential election. And yet the Trump attackers refuse to acknowledge that an issue exists, that any reasonable person could possibly think that it’s time for more restrictionist policies.
It must be said that Trump’s embrace of brutal and coarse rhetoric, particularly on the immigration issue, leaves him vulnerable to attack and to speculation about his underlying sentiments. The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial dismissing the idea that Trump was responsible in any way for the El Paso killings, nevertheless chastised him for “the divisive tone of his public rhetoric.” The editorial added, “Either Mr. Trump restrains his rhetoric or he will pay a consequential political price.”
Indeed, it can be argued that Trump’s harsh rhetorical tone has contributed significantly to his inability to forge a governing coalition during his 30 months in the White House. This certainly won’t help his reelection effort. More likely, it will undermine it.
But to blame him for the evil deeds of an obviously sick person, alienated from society and stewing in his own internal poisons, is to degrade American politics. What does it say about the state of the republic when the ghastly events of El Paso and Dayton can’t bring the country together in solemn observance of a devastating tragedy in our midst, but rather rend us into deepening divisions and condemnations, rendering all the more hopeless any prospect for national reconciliation?
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.