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Buffalo and Beyond
The normalization of the abnormal
In 2019, I wrote a column for the Indy Week of North Carolina about a massacre in Texas in which a gunman killed almost two dozen people. I’ll quote from that piece here and then say something more about the recent massacre in Buffalo.
“Last month in El Paso, Patrick Crusius murdered twenty-two people, targeting a shopping mall popular with Mexicans, shortly after he appears to have posted a manifesto warning of a Hispanic “invasion” of the United States, a term popular among the race-baiting corners of the right (and with our president). The slaughter brought renewed attention to one of the most insidious of those Republican efforts to work the refs—a 2009 media frenzy over an otherwise obscure report produced by the Department of Homeland Security.
In 2009, Darryl Johnson, then directing a small domestic extremism unit in DHS’s Office of Intelligence Assessment, wrote a report warning that the conditions were ripe for the growth of right-wing extremism in the United States.
At the time, Johnson, a self-described conservative, did not predict a coming surge in violence. But he believed that the election of a black president, the financial crisis, and other factors created conditions in which far-right movements could gain new adherents.
The report was met with a concerted fury from the right-wing media and GOP officeholders. Then-House minority leader John Boehner called on then-DHS secretary Janet Napolitano to explain why her department used the word “terrorist” to describe “American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” Then-congressman and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that the report was political correctness run amok, designed to soft-pedal the threat of Islamic terrorism.
The outcry had its intended effect.
Napolitano apologized, the DHS pulled the report, and the domestic extremism unit was essentially disbanded.
Since then, however, Johnson’s fears have come to pass—and then some.
Killers motivated by extremist and white supremacist beliefs perpetrated massacres at a Sikh temple in 2012, a black church in Charleston in 2015, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, in 2018, and the recent attack in El Paso, to name a few. FBI leaders have told Congress that right-wing extremism has become the biggest source of deadly attacks on American soil, accounting for almost all domestic politically motivated murder over the past two years.”
The 18-year old who murdered ten people in a Buffalo supermarket ten days ago wrote a lengthy screed in which he rehearsed many of the same themes that motivated the El Paso shooter. Broadly, that '“Great Replacement” narrative asserts there is an “invasion” of America by immigrants, the goal of which is to overwhelm and overrun American society with non-whites who will help the Democratic Party carry out its nefarious plot to perpetuate an eventual “white genocide.” Behind this plot is a Jewish-influenced cabal (the Buffalo shooter was explicit about this, as were the Charlotte rioters and the Pittsburgh synagogue terrorist) that is manipulating these non-white hordes for their own evil purposes. The Great Replacement, originally the title of a self-published book in France, also inspired the Christchurch killer who murdered 51 people, mostly Muslims, in New Zealand, in 2019.
I quoted from my 2019 article above because we clearly have a political problem here. The problem, most fundamentally, is the mainstreaming of extremist ideas in the Republican Party. The fact that GOP leaders were screaming bloody murder in 2009 about applying the label “terrorist” to right-wing extremists reflects the fact that such “extremism” was already uncomfortably close to the Republican Party orbit, long before Donald Trump launched his bid for the GOP nomination.
But from the Oval Office, when Trump was president, to Tucker Carlson’s highly popular primetime show on FOX, to the floor of the US Congress, it is increasingly common to hear versions of the Great Replacement emanating from what is increasingly becoming the center of the Party. It isn’t possible to draw a direct causal link between climate change and every extreme weather event. And one can’t attribute every Great Replacement-themed mass shooting to the specific utterances of specific Republican leaders or FOX news hosts. But just as it is true that as climate change intensifies, we’re only going to see more severe weather events, it seems a good bet that as right-wing leaders double and triple down on insisting that “legacy” or “real” Americans are being victimized by immigrant “invasions,” we’re going to see more such massacres carried out in the name of thwarting those alleged invasions. In other words, Carlson, J.D. Vance, Donald Trump, Elise Stefanik and other leaders are playing with fire. And the nauseating fact is that they know it.
A confession is in order here. When the news first spreads of a mass shooting, I trust I am not alone in wondering immediately about the identity of the shooter. And not just wondering, but *wanting* to learn that the identity conforms to my worldview. That means, for example, that I really don’t want to hear that the perpetrator is a Muslim. For someone with a different worldview, I can imagine they’d “hope” for something very different. It’s a grim and depressing truth, one born in part of the terrible time we’re in, when every event has both its immediate set of facts *and* its inescapable connection to the larger, zero-sum political game that defines these terrible times. So, when it emerged that the Buffalo killer was who he was, and believed what he believed, I experienced a kind of affirmation and relief. That’s depressing to write out. And it only reaffirms, for me, the despair I’ve been feeling about the time we’re in.
And one key source of that sense of gloom is that dangerous, demagogic elites are ultimately not being held accountable for their reckless disregard for all of us. Indeed, that they are finding it in their political interest to keep at it, whatever the deadly consequences. Under such circumstances, it’s little more than a desperate and inert fantasy to hope that something truly terrible will finally wake people from their slumber, to decisively repudiate the demagogues for their lack of conscience. But some days, it feels like that’s all there is - desperate fantasies.
That’s not where I intend to land at the end of these posts. At least not all of them. I’m spelling this out to give an honest accounting of what I, and I believe many others on the liberal side of the spectrum, have been experiencing. If, however, I thought desperation were all we were capable of at this point, I wouldn’t have bothered to launch this thing. But for starters, I want to give as full an accounting as I can of what I think we’re up against. That accounting is both a political project and a personal one.