Another mass shooting, this time in Christchurch New Zealand, left at least fifty people dead and many dozens wounded, proving yet again that white nationalism spreads hate and leads to the vilest of acts. Let’s call it what it is — terrorism. For some reason, when Muslim extremists attack a Western target, it is immediately condemned as an act of terrorism. But when a white man attacks two mosques and kills fifty Muslims, it is considered an isolated act of a mad man. While no one can be held accountable for these acts other than those that perpetrate these heinous crimes, let’s not fool ourselves that this is solely the random act of a nut job. He reportedly chose New Zealand precisely because it is arguably the safest country on earth. His attacks on two mosques where he ruthlessly gunned down children, women and men were not random. They were intended to send a message and to instill terror.
Western intelligence agencies work together world-wide to follow and thwart such acts by ISIS and al-Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. And well they should. But there is to date, no similar intelligence effort to follow and thwart acts by white nationalists. Make no mistake about it, the far right extremists work together via the dark web and other social media avenues to spread their ideology and to share ideas about how to carry out violence. As explained in a Washington Post article this weekend, white supremacists who are motivated by a right-wing political ideology committed more acts of violence in recent years than any other type of domestic extremist. It is time to recognize that these are not one time random events but rather that these extremists are connected in that they are motivated by and share the same websites, political views and understanding of world events. They feed off of each other. It is a movement, both here in the United States and increasingly in other Western nations around the world. They are connected in ways we may not truly understand. There was a reason this evil person left a 74 page manifesto and live streamed his attack on Facebook. He wanted to share with those like him and in a way, to brag about his ability to carry out with action what others only talk about.
Be aware of the language. Words matter and have meaning. Many experts start with the French writer Renaud Camus and his book “The Great Replacement” which is often referenced by the far right. Indeed, this shooter named his manifesto in homage to this book. In his book, Mr. Camus argues that whites in Europe are being replaced by immigrants from non-white countries and most of them are Muslims. He calls it “demographic colonization” and talks about a “counter revolt” to drive them away. Mr. Camus now has a second book along the same lines called “You Will Not Replace Us!” Remember that in 2017 the white supremacists in Charlottesville marched to the chant “Jews will not replace us!” Other words like “invasion” and depictions of non-white immigrants as criminals, and disease carriers and generally despicable non-human beings fills the pages of the writings and postings of these far right nationalists. They come from “shit hole” countries. They want to take away jobs. Sound familiar?
According to the ADL (formerly the Anti-Defamation League) in the United States from 2008 to 2017 there were 387 domestic extremist murders. Of those, they report that 71 percent of them were committed by right-wing extremists. 26 percent were by Islamic extremists and three percent were by left-wing extremists. Please don’t give me the “both sides” argument. It is time to be realistic about this danger to our citizens.
One might ask where the real “national emergency” is taking place. It may be that the real threat comes from those trying to “Make America White Again.”
We need to move beyond thinking of these incidents as isolated. They are not. Until our leadership realizes that this is a real and present danger these events will continue. When asked if he thought the rise of white nationalists around the world was a growing threat, Mr. Trump said, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. It’s certainly a terrible thing.” To think as the president does about white nationalism is to either condone it, or it is the moral equivalent of having our collective heads in the sand. From Saturday morning to Sunday night, Mr. Trump put out 50 Tweets or retweets about everything from formulating the idea that the government should investigate Saturday Night Live for colluding with the Russians (?!) to attacking Senator John McCain. (Still.) Not one concerned the massacre in New Zealand.
Wake up USA.
I hope that you all had a joyous holiday season and found time for renewal of body and spirit. We attended Mass on Christmas morning at our local parish and I found it to be an oasis of calm in an otherwise stressful world. The sense of community spirit and an appreciation that there are forces larger than all of us was the right formula for me on Christmas morning. I experience a sense of inner peace whenever I sing along with the entire congregation and we cover the old favorites such as Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World.
With that in mind, I write the following literally, without ulterior motives, a sense of superiority or criticism thinly veiled. I pity Donald J. Trump. I do not pity him in any sense other than its intended meaning. I feel sorry for him as a person. His seems to be a life unfulfilled without spiritual support.
As I pondered the spirituality of Christmas — or anyone’s personal understanding of spirituality in your own context — coupled with the sense of community I realized that Mr. Trump enjoys none of that. On Christmas Eve he filled the air waves with Tweets that ranged from plaintive, to mean, to just plain wrong. Included in those Tweets was this phrase, “I am all alone (poor me) in the White House.” To be sure, it was probably intended as a political slam to the Democrats in Congress who left town after Mr. Trump reneged on a deal brokered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). However, I think that there was more to it than just that. I think he did feel lonely, alone, and bored. Rather than reveling in the spirit of the day and the time of the season, and perhaps taking stock of his life, family and place in the world as spiritual folks are wont to do from time to time, instead he blasts out mean and insulting Tweets. The poor man — literally in my view — has no spiritual light to guide him.
In case there was any doubt that Mr. Trump had little understanding of the moment, on Christmas morning he held a “press availability” in the Oval Office where he continued to disparage just about anyone he could think of that, in his view, was standing in his way. He finished by saying, “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country. But other than that, I wish everybody a very merry Christmas.” (You can’t make these things up.)
I pity him because it must be difficult to go through life without any joy. Without any sense of wonder. Without any idea that other people care about each other for who they are rather than for what they can do for you. There may be other people out there with the same life view, but since Mr. Trump is constantly in the bright lights of the cameras it is easy to read him.
His whole life seems to be a zero sum game. He must believe that whenever someone else gets what they want, it is at his loss. Therefore, one must be ruthless, never show compassion, and take what you want before others take it from you. It is almost too easy to make comparisons to literary and movie characters that embody this same spirit, but it was suggested to me that his world view seems to be epitomized by Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.
Obviously I have no idea what Mr. Trump thinks or if he is a spiritual person. From observation I would say he is not. And that is sad. For him. Watching him at the service for President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Trump sang none of the hymns, read along with none of the prayers, and generally looked extremely uncomfortable in the setting of the National Cathedral. One does not have to sing church hymns or read standardized prayers to be spiritual, but I would be surprised if Mr. Trump gives glory to God or any other force of nature.
It must be sincerely sad for an individual to go through life with no sense of joy, no compassion, no empathy for the condition of others and no sense of the things that are bigger than all of us. To be constantly on the look out for someone trying to screw you over, trying to screw them over first, to not just “win” but to have to humiliate anyone that dares to stand in your way and on, and on, with the now well-known temperament of Mr. Trump, makes for a very sad person. Not sad by my judgement, but sad in that he must at heart be an individual that sees little to no good in others. And I would guess, he therefore lacks the self-confidence and inner fortitude that comes from knowing that you are at peace with yourself.
That is why I say I pity a man who cannot find joy in the Christmas spirit or find happiness in the small things in life that help to nourish our joy, celebrate the human spirit, and provide a sense of inner peace.
I recently returned from a vacation tour through Europe. We were fortunate enough to travel from Budapest, Hungary to Amsterdam, Netherlands and had a great time. It was interesting on many levels — history, culture, fellow travelers, all of it. As always when traveling overseas, of course, it also reminded me of how lucky I am to live in the United States. For all of our troubles and differences of opinions, at least in my lifetime, we have been incredibly fortunate.
This was brought home in one way by the opportunity to visit cities and towns throughout central Europe that were occupied by the Soviets, Nazis, or both. As I am always reminded, it is one thing to learn history from a book, and quite another to talk to people who lived through the experiences. To these people, it is still a living history. In the former communist states of Hungary and Slovakia, the rebuilding from World War II is nearly complete. Construction was delayed for decades because of the Soviet occupation and the reluctance or lack of caring (or both) to put any thought or effort into rebuilding locally important buildings. While the Soviets (and local regimes) obviously built structures during the period leading up to 1989, they did so without regard to historic local norms, desires or long-standing culture. And, not to put too fine of a point on it, but what they did build is down right ugly.
In Austria and Germany the scars of World War II remain. Perhaps not so much with respect to rebuilding cities, but with their history. Indeed, we were told that the now famous museum in Nuremberg retelling the story of Hitler’s rise and rule — used to educate German youth of the horrors of that period — was not built until 2002. According to our guide, it could not have been built any earlier because no one wanted to confront that chapter of German history. Only the younger generation could face the facts. Many of the medieval cities along the Main and Rhine Rivers had to be rebuilt as they were mostly 90% or more destroyed by Allied bombing. For the locals this was just a fact — not something raised in acrimony — although they often pointed out that there was no tactical or operational reason for the bombing. There was only the strategic goal of breaking the will of the people through sheer helplessness. We have not experienced anything like that since the 1860’s.
Likewise, it was with helplessness that many in these countries watched the flow of thousands upon thousands of people from the Middle East into Europe. We have seen the reports on the news here in the U.S., but again, in Europe they are living the reality of the situation. It is a tragedy seemingly without a solution. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died making the attempt to get to safety, primarily by sea to Greece where they then try to move on to wealthier nations. The European Union is grappling with how to deal with the situation. Provide humanitarian assistance and it probably entices more people to make the dangerous run. Do nothing to help them and thousands of people suffer and die.
From a distance, the most interesting discussion involved what to call these people. Perhaps that discussion is relevant to our own political debates in the run-up to the 2016 elections. The question was whether they were “migrants,” “refugees” “asylum seekers” or “immigrants.” The question is more than one of semantics as under international law and under the standards of humanitarian treatment, how they are categorized makes a difference in how nations should, and will, deal with them. To those making the dangerous trek however, it may matter little. It is a problem that is only going to continue to grow as the civil war in Syria continues, and ISIS and other groups operate in the Middle East. Without solving that root problem, the mass migration, the largest since World War II according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will continue.
In 1980’s I had two experiences with people fleeing what must have been intolerable conditions. I still think about them to this day. They were on a smaller scale than those going on today in Europe, but in some ways are even more unbelievable. Today’s refugees leaving the Middle East for Europe take boats across the Mediterranean Sea headed for Europe. It is very dangerous and they are horribly mistreated by smugglers profiting from the endeavor. But they have a destination in mind and a relatively short trip. In the early 80’s refugees were leaving Viet Nam in small boats heading out to sea. No destination, per se — they were just hoping that a passing freighter (or their greatest hope, a U.S. Navy ship) would spot them and pick them up. Some made it, some did not. There is no real way of knowing because those that didn’t make it were lost at sea without a trace. Those that got picked up ended up all over the Pacific because most ships would continue to their destinations before off-loading those they had picked up. On two different USN ships I was part of the ship’s company that picked up some of these refugees. We were not on any mission to do so, it was purely luck or providence that we spotted them adrift at sea as we proceeded through the area. Of the several occasions, it was nearly always the same. We would spot a rickety non-sea worthy vessel of about 50 feet adrift with upwards of 75 or 80 people on board. Usually those on board consisted of a couple of extended families (babies to grand parents) from the same geographic area. They were out of fuel and food and nearly out of water. They had nothing but the clothes on their back as in each case pirates intercepted the boats before we did and took everything of value from the people — including pulling teeth with silver or gold fillings. There were rarely young women on board as the pirates took them too.
Unbelievable. To this day I ask myself how bad things would have to be to put my entire extended family in a non-sea worthy boat and push out to sea with no destination and only a vague hope that a friendly ship would stop and help us. And the odds were that no one would see us. I cannot imagine risking the lives of my entire family in such a way. I still think about it.
(As a footnote, I later served on ships where some of the new crew members reporting aboard were babies or small children on those boats rescued at sea in the early 80’s by U.S. Navy ships. Only in America.)
In the late 1980’s my ship was operating in the Caribbean Sea on a mission unrelated to the migration then taking place from Haiti. The U.S. Coast Guard was actively involved in rescuing those migrants, also in flimsy boats, from the sea. They would take the refugees to the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba where they would be processed by Immigration and State Department personnel and then generally returned to Haiti. Pure chaos. Again what came through was the overwhelming desperation of the people. While we were not directly involved in that operation, we were certainly able to observe at close hand how difficult it was to effect the rescues on a mass scale and then to humanely treat the people once they reached shore while still trying to maintain some degree of orderliness and safety. It is an extremely difficult task.
I can only imagine what is going on at sea and ashore in Europe as the numbers of people flowing into Europe dwarf anything that I participated in or observed. A very tough situation.
We are so lucky in so many ways. As partisan divides emerge, I trust that all of us will realize how lucky we are compared to so many in this world — past and present.