When newscasters speak of Dayton and El Paso, I hear my name.
I was born in Dayton, Ohio, and later covered local news there as an intern in the days of typewriters and telephone booths.
Years later, my son would attend the University of Texas at El Paso (Go, Miners!). I met a number of “nice and neighborly” local folks, as we used to say where I grew up, including a promising young city council member named Beto O’Rourke.
Yet, as Dayton and El Paso grieve over their loss of nine and at least 22 people, respectively, to deranged gunmen Saturday and early Sunday, I also grieve for my beloved adopted hometown of Chicago.
Over the same weekend, two shootings on the city’s West Side left seven injured and, a few blocks away, one dead and seven more injured.
Yet, as the Chicago Tribune reported, those tragedies are not called “mass shootings” because the experts who do the counting don’t agree on what should be counted as a “mass shooting.”
But, let’s face it, the more urgent question that follows such tragedies is, what is to be done about it?
That’s the question that has come to define today’s hardening political divide in this country. President Donald Trump condemned the gunmen who carried out the attacks and the racism that apparently motivated the one in El Paso.
Not surprisingly, Trump blamed the internet, video games and mental health problems – just about everything, in fact, but guns.
Youths in other developed countries from Japan and China to Europe play as many or more video games than Americans do. Yet none has a gun violence surge that is at all comparable to ours.
No, the president who rails against “political correctness” is politically astute enough to throw himself into all sorts of rational and linguistic contortions to avoid suggesting that guns have anything to do with our record-breaking gun casualty statistics. This in a country that has more guns – more than one per person – than any other on the planet.
To do so would break him away from fellow Republican leaders who treat even such modest and broadly supported reforms as background checks as tantamount to outright gun confiscation.
Trump did hint in a tweet early Monday morning that he might propose background checks paired with “desperately needed immigration reform.” But that appeared nowhere in his speech to the nation a few hours later, in which he incorrectly extended his condolences to the wrong Ohio city, Toledo.
That blooper symbolized in many minds the inconsistency of Trump’s call for peace after weeks of being accused, not without justification, of fanning flames of white resentment against immigrants and fellow Americans of color on his barnstorming campaign for reelection.
Undaunted, Trump also promised to give law enforcement “whatever they need” to investigate and disrupt hate crimes and domestic terrorism. That would be great, considering how much his administration has tried to redirect resources away from addressing far-right, white supremacist domestic terrorists – and toward overseas terrorism and failed attempts to build Trump’s promised wall.
Hardly anyone paid attention last month when FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Senate committee headed by Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, that his bureau had made “about 90” domestic terror arrests in the last nine months. Most of those arrests, he said, were motivated by “white-supremacist violence.”
Imagine, for example, how many more eyebrows would have perked up if he had said the suspected terrorists were driven by “jihadist” instead of “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” motives.
Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers have expressed deep denial about the dangers of white supremacist violence since at least 2009. That’s when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was pressured to withdraw a report that warned the “threat posed by lone wolves and small terrorist cells is more pronounced than in past years,” particularly from far-right extremists.
Conservative lawmakers and sympathetic media were outraged by the report, particularly its assertion that right-wing radicals were trying to recruit disgruntled military veterans. That was a slur against the troops by President Barack Obama’s administration, they charged. You might think they had never heard of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. He was recruited into a militant far-right militia group while he was serving in the Army during Operation Desert Storm.
That report now looks prophetic in hindsight. How much more denial will we see before Washington gets serious about a clear and present danger right under our noses?
The motives of the Dayton killer have not been clear, but the El Paso shooter, in an online rant, expressed boilerplate paranoid views of an “invasion” by immigrants and others who don’t fit the white supremacist idea of what an American should be.
Our president and Congress should be standing united in their efforts to turn down the heat under the nation’s melting pot – and we, the voters, should hold them accountable when they don’t, before the pot boils over.