WASHINGTON, D.C. – Last Saturday, student journalists at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting told stories from around the globe about religious persecution, sex trafficking and the hopes and dreams of refugees and migrants hunting for a better life across an ocean, or gulf or invisible national border. They were hopes sometimes realized in the prosperous life of a migrant family and sometimes brutally ended in an unmarked grave in Texas.
As the student journalists spoke, the headline scrolling across the audience’s mobile devices told another story – more horrifying by the hour. An angry, anti-Semitic, anti-refugee white supremacist had stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s peaceful Squirrel Hill neighborhood screaming his hatred of Jews as he massacred them at worship with his assault rifle.
Just before storming the synagogue, the gunman, Robert D. Bowers, had posted ominously on his fringe internet hangout, Gab, his hatred of the Jewish nonprofit HIAS that has brought refugees to the United States for more than a century, including refugees fleeing the Holocaust.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers fumed. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Back at the Pulitzer Center, Indira Lakshmanan, the executive editor, tweeted her thoughts about the peaceful, loving neighborhood of Squirrel Hill where she had grown up four blocks from the synagogue and a couple of blocks from Fred Rogers, America’s symbol of quiet tolerance and mutual respect. “Mr. Rogers, a neighbor on street of my first childhood home in #SquirrelHill #Pittsburgh, set an example of love and civility and acceptance of differences,” she wrote. “We need leaders who model tolerance for adults as well as kids – and reject hate instead of encouraging it #TreeofLife.”
It was the end of an exhausting, frightening week of far right hate that included 14 (now 15) pipe bombs mailed to prominent opponents of President Trump, apparently by Cesar Sayoc Jr., an avid Trump supporter with a van covered by Trump stickers. Less noticed was the murder of two African-Americans in Louisville, shot at a Kroger store by another angry white man who had tried minutes earlier to get into an African-American church. The man had a history of mental illness and racist rants.
Sayoc, charged as the pipe bomber, had increasingly spent his time spewing far-right conspiracy theories on social media and spinning violent fantasies and threats against people he allegedly was targeting with pipe bombs. He spoke of his love for Hitler, attended Trump rallies and joined the angry shouts at the press: “CNN sucks. Tell the truth.”
A disturbing commonality among the stories was the way domestic terrorists, styled as super-patriots, abuse our freedoms and subvert our great experiment in self-government.
Hate speech, protected by the First Amendment, becomes a trigger of the barrage of bullets fired from an assault rifle, claimed as part of the freedom protected by the Second Amendment.
Social media dedicated to uninhibited expression becomes the forum of hate, disinformation and confusion. Sayoc constructed his online conspiracy theories based on clips from Fox News. Bowers channelled his hate on to Gab, a would-be Twitter created by a Silicon Valley conservative frustrated that mainstream social media platforms censored the right. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and the alt-right hopped on board.
Words not bullets
After the shooting, Gab defended itself: “Words are not bullets. Social media posts have a body count of zero. The sole responsibility for today’s horrific actions lies with one person. We will do everything in our power to work with law enforcement to see that justice is served.”
It’s a pat answer used often by supporters of the First Amendment, myself included. But is it completely accurate?
The First Amendment can serve as a release valve that allows the steam of hate to be released from the body politic. But the advent of the internet alters the dynamic. In the past each town and city had a few or a few dozen crazies who were isolated losers. Now social media allows the scattered white supremacist, neo-Nazis and other extremists to gather together virtually in an army of Internet extremists.
Hate speech, like Bowers’, is protected by the First Amendment unless it advocates imminent violence and is likely to result in that violence. The Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced an investigation of Gab, tweeting “Leaders must speak and act with moral clarity. Words matter. Hate speech begets hate crimes.” But Bowers’ posting about “going in” is probably protected speech.
Still, can we say with certainty that the anti-Semitic hate on Gab didn’t trigger Bowers’ murderous attack? Can we say with certainty that the toxicity of Trump’s attacks on the media at his rallies didn’t trigger Sayoc’s pipe bombs to CNN? Can we say with certainty that Trump’s use of the word invaders for those approaching our border did not contribute to Bowers’ mission against the “invaders” being brought to America by the Jewish group he was attacking?
Even as the 15th pipe bomb was arriving at CNN, Trump was blaming it and the media for national divisions, typically refusing to acknowledge any accountability of his own. Trump tweeted: “There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!”
Even as Sarah Huckabee Sanders emotionally and forcefully condemned the Pittsburgh shootings, the president was using the same words as the shooter to condemn the “caravan” of asylum seekers marching on foot through Mexico toward the U.S. border. “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” Trump tweeted Monday. Bowers, shortly before attacking the synagogue, blamed Jews for bringing “invaders” who were killing his people.
Even as Sayoc, the Trump fan and rally regular, was charged with dozens of counts of federal crimes and Bowers arrested for his murders, Trump was talking to adoring supporters in Murphysboro, Il. who included white supremacists from the Patriot Front along with supporters like Kevin Sauls from Ridgway, Il. Sauls, wrapped in an American flag, said he was there so Trump “will know that God put him in that position to save our country” and “can help the working man and the white people who stood up for him….”
Even as Trump was preparing to pay his respects to the fallen in Pittsburgh he was provocatively proposing to end birthright citizenship with the stroke of a executive order, even though he can’t do that because of the plain meaning of the words of the 14th Amendment.
The bombings and the shootings aren’t directly attributable to Trump, but the absence of enlightened leadership is. So is the president’s rhetoric, which has normalized hate for opponents, normalized verbal attacks on the very people later targeted by the pipe bomber and normalized demeaning, racist attacks on African-Americans, calling people like Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Ca., “a very low I.Q. individual.”
While words themselves don’t kill, they can act as the gunpowder for the bullet. Trump last June began calling illegal immigrants “invaders.” Bowers wrote on Gab that he liked the change in words. Six days before the shooting he wrote, “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders.’ I like this.”
The president isn’t helpless. He can stop calling asylum-seekers “invaders.” He can stop making up unsubstantiated stories about Democrats organizing the caravan through Mexico. His allies can stop blaming George Soros for organizing the convoy, an obvious way to stir up anti-Semitism. He can stop saying he’ll end birthright citizenship because he has to know he can’t do it and that it is only fanning the flames of hate from his supporters.
Hope in young journalists
As the body count in Pittsburgh reached 11, the two days of student presentations at the Pulitzer Center ended on a hopeful note.
Ingrid Holmquist and Sana Malik, talented graduate students at Columbia University, were telling the story of Winny, a Mexican migrant who has spent 23 years migrating to a Connecticut farm where he could earn enough money to create a prosperous life for the three children his wife were raising back in Mexico. Now the children were moving on to college with big dreams, one of being an engineer, another a doctor. Sandy, the woman who owns the Connecticut farm, traveled to Mexico to see the high school graduation.
Ronald Reagan’s “amnesty” had enabled Winny to get a green card so that he could make his trip back and forth to Connecticut without fearing arrest. An intelligent, welcoming immigration policy had benefited a Mexican family and a Connecticut farmer.
Beyond that success story is the promise offered by 40 student fellows – most of them women – who ventured beyond borders to tell untold stories about people outside our view. They are nurtured by the Pulitzer Center, which has deep ties to St. Louis through its founders, funders and leaders – Jon and Kem Sawyer and Emily Rauh Pulitzer.
Amna Al-Baker, a student from Northwestern in Qatar, reported with two colleagues about the murderous persecution of Ahmadi Muslims in Pakistan, even though members of her own Sunni family asked why she would report on infidels. Holly Piepenburg of Southern Illinois University, reported on the educational disadvantages that persist for the Lakota Sioux on the Rosebud reservation in Mission, S.D., where an elementary student was excited to get a textbook with four pages about Native Americans only to discover that one of the pages had a map of U.S. reservations and the other a stereotypical photo of a “savage.” And Svanika Balasubramanian of the University of Pennsylvania, who grew up in Oman and discovered as a teenager that her privileged life had shielded her from the exploitation of female domestics brought to Gulf countries where many were raped, murdered, abused and burned with oil while living in virtual slavery under the Kafala system that subjugates migrant women to resident men.
These young female and male journalists are already shining the light of truth on the ways privileged white males exploit refugees, migrants, immigrants, vulnerable girls – the other. They’re not going to stand for a society in which people looking for a better life are called invaders or where journalism’s hard truths are dismissed as fake news from the enemy of the people.