Nearly one year after the Charleston massacre, we are reminded again that hatred is deadly. Now we must affirm that no one who "returns hate for hate" is qualified to lead.
On Friday, it will have been one year since a 21-year-old racist walked in to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was ushered into Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s office to meet with the pastor. From there joined parishioners in a bible study. One hour later, the shooter pointed his gun, declared, “You rape our women and are taking over our country, and you have to go,” and started firing, leaving nine people dead. The killer hoped to catalyze a “race war” with his act, and left victims alive to tell the world what he’d done.
The reaction to Charleston fueled unexpected changes. In South Carolina and across the South, the Confederate battle flag came down from many of the places where it still flew. Cities and educational institutions plunged in to debates about removing statues of confederates and slavery proponents, and renaming buildings and streets named for them.
President Obama rose to the occasion — as he had so many times before — at the moment the nation needed a leader who could help us make sense of the senseless, give voice to our despair, and inspire us not to be led into darkness by giving the killer exactly what he wanted.
Compare President Obama’s performance to that of presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in our history, which happened in the late hours of Saturday night, at the LGBT nightclub Pulse, in Orlando, Florida.
- Before the bodies of the dead were even removed from the scene, Trump was congratulating himself on Twitter for being “right on radical Islamic terrorism,” boasting “I said this was going to happen” on his website, and renewing his call for a ban on Muslim immigration.
- Trump claimed the Orlando shooter was “born an Afgan to Afghan parents who immigrated to the United States.” He said "the only reason the killer was in the United States is because we allowed his family to come here in the first place. The shooter, in fact, was born in New York and moved to Florida as a child.
- Trump openly suggested that Muslim Americans represent a threat that must be addressed more aggressively. He claimed that “we have thousands of people right now in this country,” and “people that were born in this country,” who are susceptible to being “radicalized,” and that it was time to “turn them in.” The same logic was used to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
- In his speech in response to the Orlando attack, Trump claimed that Hillary Clinton would allow “Radical Islamic terrorists to pour into our country” and “enslave women, and murder gays.”
- Trump declared that President Obama should resign from the presidency, and that Hillary Clinton should drop out of the presidential race for not using the phrase “Radical Islam” in talking about the Orlando attack.
- During television interviews, Trump repeatedly insinuated that “there’s something going on” with President Obama and Islamic terrorism. On a call-in interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump said “We’re led by a man that either is not tough, is not smart, or he’s got something else in mind,”; suggesting, as he has in the past, that the president is a secret Muslim and terrorist sympathizer.
- During a CNN interview, Trump said, “If you had some guns in that club the night that this took place, if you had guns on the other side, you wouldn’t have had the tragedy that you had,” suggesting that more armed clubgoers, shooting blindly in the dark, crowded, chaotic space would somehow have saved lives.
This is something never seen before: a presidential candidate using an act of terror to spread fear and division among Americans. Even in the devastation following the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush took care to distinguish between a war against terrorism and a war against Islam. When supporters at his rally called Barack Obama a “terrorist” and an “Arab,” John McCain had the decency to correct them. Mitt Romney made it a point to distinguish between terrorism and Islam itself.
Trump exploits tragedy to sow anger, anxiety and division among Americans. He’s giving Daesh just what it wants. The terrorist group sent out a message weeks ago, urging sympathizers and supporters to launch attacks in Europe and the US during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
These attacks require minimal investment by Daesh, which does little more than issue calls for sympathizers to launch attacks in its name. The attacks are carried out by killers whose only connections to Daesh are often little more than tossed-off declarations of allegiance before dying. Daesh then simply applies its “branding,” by claiming credit once an attack is carried out, without ever communicating directly with the killers — let alone investing training and arming them.
The potential payoff is, to borrow one of Trump’s favorite words, “huge.” Daesh urges its sympathizers in the West to launch attacks in their own countries “day and night, scaring them and terrorizing them, until every neighbor fears his neighbor.” As Daesh has publicly spelled out in its strategy, the goal of these attacks is to cause widespread anti-Muslim persecution in the West, in order to leave Muslims around the world with nowhere to turn, and no choice but to join their cause.
Daesh is counting on someone like Donald Trump, to help them radicalize Muslims in the West. He has essentially declared war on Muslim Americans — with his calls to ban Muslim migration; spy and shut down mosques; require Muslim Americans to register for a database, and wear special IDs indicating their religion.
Daesh couldn’t have asked for a better Western recruitment agent than Trump. Every point of his agenda — backing attacks Syrian population centers, calling for a complete shutdown of Muslim migration to the US, pledging to indiscriminately “bomb the shit out of” Daesh-held territories, advocating targeting the innocent family members of terrorists — perfectly reinforces Daesh’s recruitment message.
It’s easy to laugh at Trump as an orange tinted, ignorance-worshiping buffoon, but it’s also far too easy to dismiss the danger he represents. It’s no coincidence that threats and attacks against Muslim individuals and institutions increased after Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the US, and began demonizing Muslim Americans.
As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in *Strength To Love*:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
Daesh knows this as well as Dr. King new it. They’re counting on it. Their strategy only works if their attacks inspire us to “return hate for hate,” multiplying it until it metastasizes into policies they can further exploit.
Donald Trump, in that sense, represents the terrorists’ ultimate hope: a leader who will lead us into “deeper darkness,” with policies that will inevitably result in more attacks like Paris, San Bernardino, and Orlando.