Over the past two years, our country has been engaged in an ongoing conversation about “civility.” From the Women’s March to NFL players who kneel in protest of racial inequality and injustice, from people interrupting Trump administration officials out to dinner to protestors interrupting Supreme Court nomination hearings to register their dissent, various pundits and leaders across the political spectrum have expressed distaste for what they see as a rise in tactics that are uncivil, unproductive, and anti-democratic.
I’ve watched this debate unfold with frustration the entire time because it seems very clear to me that calling out bigotry and standing up for human rights — and confronting leaders who promote and exploit racism, xenophobia, transphobia, sexism, anti-Semitism either in their rhetoric or their policies or both — is the very definition of civil behavior. But in the past week the conversation reached an entirely new low.
People, largely Republican commentators equated confronting public servants in restaurants to bombs being sent to my parents’ home — as if explosive material and threats of violence are at all equivalent to demands for answers, accountability, and a recognition of shared humanity. These demands may be coming from righteously angry people, and they may make some uncomfortable, but in no way are these peaceful protests, even if yelled out, equivalent to actual threats and acts of violence.
This entire week of news has been a catalogue of horror. My parents were not the only people to be on the receiving end of this attempted terrorism. Thirteen other explosive devices were sent to the Obamas, Democratic officials and common targets of President Trump’s rhetoric, from CNN to George Soros. Thankfully, no one was hurt.
Later in the very same week, many innocent people were killed: In Louisville Kentucky, two Black senior citizens were murdered at a grocery store by a white man who allegedly was driven by his racist hatred of Black people. And on Saturday, a gunman burst into the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh before opening fire, killing 11 people and wounding 6 others. “Jews must die,” he was said to have shouted. It was the largest loss of Jewish life on a single day in American history.
This moment in American history is terrifying for many because the threats and the violence are all too real. It is not the ordinary Americans standing up, and yes, making a scene, and disrupting in an effort to be heard, who are the problem we should be wringing our hands over. It is instead radicalized white supremacist terrorists who threaten people and kill people and who seem to be emboldened right now, that we should be deeply concerned about. This shouldn’t have to be stated and yet it does.
Making matters worse is that the President of the United States is at best, fine with being a beneficiary of this rising, visible hate, if not himself an engine of it. From the start of his campaign, he labeled Mexicans “rapists,” and as President he’s repeatedly denigrated and dehumanized people for all sorts of “reasons”: from whether or not he finds them attractive to demeaning their home countries as “sh*tholes.” Since taking office, he’s played nice with white nationalists, and continued to refer to the press as “the enemy of the people,” even after the offices of the Maryland Capital-Gazette became the site of a massacre, and after CNN offices in Manhattan had to evacuate last week because of a bomb scare.
President Trump is not an anomaly today (see Congressman Steve King of Iowa) or in history. At least since Cicero, who more than 2,000 years ago talked about the “odium of Jewish gold,” anti-Semitic rhetoric has linked Jews with supposed ill-gotten money, often used for supposed misbegotten purposes. The 2018 version of this are the absurd assertions that George Soros is paying for, in the favored parlance of Fox News, an “invasion” of Central Americans into the United States. Despite no evidence of George Soros having any connection to the group slowly coming north to seek asylum.
After what happened this past week with bombs and bloodshed, this cannot be dismissed as “just” crazy rhetoric. Mr. Soros was the first person last week known to have been sent a bomb. And the theory that Jews are funding an “invasion” of non-whites to the United States is one Robert Bowers, the Tree of Life murderer, shared on social media. Words that demean and degrade are often the gateway drug to words that threaten and the very real violence that often follows.
The best course of action now is two-fold: First, we must continue to name and call out anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, classism or any other form of bigotry, and next we must vote next Tuesday.
Failing to do either in this moment would be to create more space for bigotry to fill; not standing up against this would be an example of true incivility. This is our country. It is what we make of it — what we accept and refuse to accept. What we resist and what we affirm. I still believe love trumps hate — but only if we make it so.