The only proper response to the latest mass shooting in the United States is horror and outrage. The suspect, an 18-year-old name Payton Gendron, murdered 10 African-Americans in the parking lot of a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. His motive for committing this atrocity was apparently indicated in social-media postings in which he vented his neo-Nazi, racist and anti-Semitic beliefs. This particular strain of white supremacist thinking may be limited to a tiny fraction of the population. But as we’ve seen in previous such horrors—like the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh in 2018 and Poway, Calif., in 2019—its adherents are violent and capable of putting their twisted ideas into action.
There are many opinions about what to do about this problem, but few are practical. In a country where there are more firearms than people and the right to own one is guaranteed by the Constitution, almost all gun-control proposals merely nibble around the edges of the issue and would do nothing to stop mass killings. Combine that with society’s ongoing failure to address mental illness in a serious manner, and a steady stream of such terrible events is almost a given.
But that doesn’t stop the posturing of the political class whenever gun violence produces a sufficiently gruesome toll of lives to allow them to use the latest atrocity to ride their favorite political hobby horses. And as has happened in the past, neo-Nazi and/or radical right-wing violence is seized upon by the political left to justify their critique of those who disagree with them on a host of social issues. That meant a news cycle of cable-news commentary, social-media postings and political statements that attempted to link Republicans and conservatives to the slayings in Buffalo.
Not only is America plagued by a gun-violence dilemma; it is trapped in a hyper-partisan political culture that is essentially breaking society.
It is one thing to say that those who disagree with administration actions that amount to opening the borders are wrong or that their worries about the changes such policies will have on the nation are without substance. It is quite another to say that those who think this way—a category that easily includes at least half of the country—can be linked to lunatics who post bizarre neo-Nazi rants on social media and then fire into crowds of human beings.
If that sort of effort to link mainstream opinion on a variety of issues is described as enabling white supremacy or goes mainstream and becomes normative political discourse, that’s a disaster. It means we are approaching a moment of no return with respect to efforts to bridge the partisan gap and rebuild not just bipartisanship but a sense of shared community. And when those involved in this dangerous effort to delegitimize political discourse also claim to do so in the name of defending Jews from neo-Nazis, then we are in dangerous territory indeed. Not the least because some of those on the left who make such accusations are themselves guilty of support for anti-Semitic ideas and efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state and all who support it.
Some of the most egregious examples of this kind of thinking included an article in Rolling Stone in which the author linked the killer with a laundry list of mainstream conservative thinkers and causes on a variety of political and social issues. Equally contemptible was a predictable collection of stories churned out by The Atlantic. In one, readers were informed by a former Obama administration figure that even if the shooter appears to have acted on his own, he wasn’t really a “lone wolf” because conservative political and media figures shared his beliefs, even if they do so in a manner that gives them “plausible deniability.”
A lot of this revolves around the discussion about “replacement theory.”
That’s the idea that those who enable mass illegal immigration are essentially trying to create a new electorate that they believe, rightly or wrongly, will ensure that Democrats will stay in power for the indefinite future. It was cited by the Buffalo shooter. That gave leftist ideologues and even politicians like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who is at war with her own Republican Party and eager to brand the overwhelming majority of GOP voters and officeholders who support former President Donald Trump as supporters of “white supremacy,” an excuse to connect dots between her political opponents and this crime.
This accusation has been taken up again by the Anti-Defamation League in an effort to discredit Republicans, as part of their switch from their former nonpartisan stance to becoming a mouthpiece for Democratic Party talking points. The problem with this effort is that it ignores the fact that Democrats, liberals, and, yes, even The Atlantic, often say the same thing about the changing demography of the American electorate—the only difference being that, unlike those on the right who decry the possibility, they are looking forward to a more Hispanic electorate ensuring perpetual defeat for the GOP.
How can it be perfectly legitimate to cheer the idea that states like Texas will flip from red to blue because of immigration (an assumption that is not panning out due to the fact that Hispanic voters are just as alarmed by open border policies as non-Hispanics) if those who worry about the impact of the same trend are also treated as if they are racists who giving a green light for mass murder?
What’s also wrong with this effort to associate the right with extremist shooters is that those who speak this way are predictably silent when it comes to murders that can’t somehow be linked to the political right. It is not a case of “whataboutism” to note that the anti-white racism of the person who deliberately drove a car into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wis., murdering six people, did not set off a round of soul-searching on the left about the way the Black Lives Matter movement and the influence of critical race theory is fueling that sort of violence or the riots that burned American cities in the summer of 2020. Nor is it out of bounds to point out that the epidemic of gang shootings that have resulted in hundreds of murders of African-American victims in the city of Chicago alone last year is ignored by the same voices that seek to exploit the far smaller, though terribly, tragic toll of white extremist shootings to delegitimize conservative opinion.
The ADL is belatedly recognizing the danger of anti-Semitism emanating from the left. Still, it refuses to connect any dots between the Black Lives Matter movement and the way that critical race theory and intersectionality give a permission slip to anti-Semitism. In this way, they have helped create a narrative on the political left in which those who wish to demonize the right can invoke a fear of anti-Semitism while not being held accountable for their own ideas that are actually anti-Semitic or about major figures, like the new White House Press Secretary, who are credibly linked to anti-Semitism.
This does nothing to help us deal with mass shootings, racism or anti-Semitism. The victims in Buffalo deserve to be mourned and honored. The same is true with others who have been targeted by hate-filled murderers, no matter what ideology is used to justify their crimes.
Democracy can’t work if you treat political opponents as not just wrong but evil. That’s something that the willingness of liberal echo chamber media outlets and their political allies to use such events to make political hay don’t seem to care about. The sprint to place events like the Buffalo shooting in a political context isn’t just counter-productive; it is demonstrably making political discourse more toxic and divisive, and creating an environment where anti-Semitism is more likely to thrive than fail. If our civic culture seems broken, point to attitudes like these as the cause, far more than the rants or even the actions of extremists.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.