In the last few weeks, the United States has been treated to some of the most irresponsible political posturing we can remember. This creates a civic climate that engenders fear and alienation rather than mutual respect and support, and that is dangerous. Nonprofits have a responsibility to take a stand against talk that fatally poisons the civic climate wherever and whenever they can especially in a nation where firearms are readily available and a tradition of senseless mass violence is becoming an embedded part of our culture.
Thirty governors and many of the GOP presidential candidates have declared Syrian refugees fleeing from their homelands as unwelcome, setting up communities to live in fear of their new neighbors and the newcomers for a sense of danger and isolation. Many comparisons have been made to the attitudes toward and treatment of Jewish refugees during World War II. Ben Carson made an unfortunate statement comparing Syrian refugees to “rabid dogs,” and others have invoked the model of the internment camp.
A line can be drawn to connect this trend to additional anti-Muslim blather from Donald Trump surrounding his claim that he witnessed thousands of Muslims celebrating in the streets of New Jersey immediately after the events of September 11th, 2001. (Not to mention a subsequent verbal attack against the disabled reporter who contradicted him, accompanied with the mimicking of the physical signs of that disability.) Trump has suggested that all mosques be kept under surveillance, and his derogatory characterization of Mexican immigrants led Mexico’s ambassador to the United States, Miguel Basáñez, to declare, “The Republican primary campaign has been dominated since the summer by racist rhetoric and ignorance that has inflamed hate and harmful stereotypes.”
A group of 67 prominent intellectuals, scientists, artists and award-winning authors from Mexico, Latin American and Spain “condemned” billionaire Republican candidate Donald Trump’s “hate speech” which, they warned, “recalls historical campaigns against other ethnic groups that led to millions of deaths.”
The longstanding demonizing campaign against Planned Parenthood, now focused on the alleged (and largely debunked) sale of infant body parts is part and parcel of that adherence to inflammatory speech, with such insistence by Carly Fiorina that tapes by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, showed “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.” This was, in fact, not true but the result of misleading editing. Still, Fiorina fiercely stands by her statement.
And now, an alienated white male gunman with a history of violence has attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, leaving three dead and nine wounded. Witnesses heard the shooter tell the officers who arrested him, “No more baby parts!” Arguments about whether or not the shooter was politically motivated are flying fast and furious. The fact is that he probably was not politically driven but a deeply troubled man besieged by a drumbeat of heated but unaccountable political rhetoric.
In fact, one neighbor described what she heard of his politics as follows:
He said he worked with the government, and everybody was out to get him, and he knew the secrets of the U.S.A. He said, “Nobody touch me, because I’ve got enough information to put the whole U.S. of A in danger.” It was very crazy.
I am reminded of an article printed in the New Yorker earlier this year about Anders Breivik, who killed seventy-seven people in Norway back in 2011—mostly young, and most of them at a summer camp. The author looked at the issue of political motivations, and found a lot of evidence to support the idea.
In his manifesto, he interviews himself as if he were a hero; and the impression this gives is of a person who has erected a make-believe reality, in which his significance is undisputed. The way in which he carried out his crime, and the way his thoughts contextualized it, resembles role-playing, rather than political terrorism. The solitude this implies is enormous, not to mention the need for self-assertion. The most logical approach is to view his actions as a variation on the numerous school massacres that have occurred in the past decades in the United States, Finland, and Germany: a young man, a misfit, who is either partly or completely excluded from the group, takes as many people with him into death as he can, in order to “show” us.
In the end, however, he concludes, “We should direct our attention to the collapse within the human being which these actions represent and which makes them possible. Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.”
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That is why the “otherness” talk from some politicians—talk that mocks, excludes, dehumanizes, demonizes and derides—is so incredibly dangerous, and why that talk is so incredibly important for nonprofits to actively counter.
Silence, as we know, amounts to tacit consent. And indeed, the Washington Post noted on Saturday that where all of the Democratic candidates for president denounced the Colorado shootings as a tragedy, the GOP candidates were eerily silent (as of that writing) on the matter. The Post wrote:
Not until much more is known about alleged gunman Robert Lewis Dear and his motivations will the political implications of his actions become clear. It is not yet apparent whether the heated rhetoric surrounding the abortion issue, and Planned Parenthood in particular, influenced his actions.
Since then, Ben Carson (of the rabid dog comment) said on CBSs’ Face the Nation, “There is no question that you know hateful rhetoric no matter which side it comes from—right or left—is something that is detrimental to our society. […] Our strength in this country has traditionally been in our unity. And we are allowing all kinds of circumstances to divide us and make us hateful toward each other. And the rhetoric is extremely immature, divisive and is not helpful when you have outside forces—global Islamic radical jihadists who want to destroy us.”
“No question the hateful rhetoric exacerbates the situation,” Carson said, encouraging “intelligent, civil discussion” about differences.
On Saturday in Sarasota, Florida, Trump had this to say: “If some of those folks that were just slaughtered in Paris, if a couple of guns were in that room that were held by the good guys, you would’a had a different story, let me tell you.” President Obama, of course, disagrees:
“We can’t let it become normal,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. “If we truly care about this—if we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience—then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them. Period. Enough is enough.”
“While we still do not know the shooter’s motive,” said Bernie Sanders, “what is clear is that Planned Parenthood has been the subject of vicious and unsubstantiated statements attacking an organization that provides critical health care for millions of Americans. Sanders said, “I strongly support Planned Parenthood and the work it is doing and hope people realize that bitter rhetoric can have unintended consequences.”
In discussing Trump’s statements on Mexicans, Basáñez told Forbes’s Dolia Estevez in an interview:
Irresponsible words should have consequences. Political speech that doesn’t reflect the high values of freedom, respect, and acceptance of diversity embedded in American society will not go unnoticed. The intelligence of sensible American voters will punish the irresponsibility of this inflamed rhetoric in time.
Nonprofits should not count on that.
What role do nonprofits have in setting and maintaining a healthy civic climate, especially when elected officials appear to be systematically stirring up hate and fear among the populace? We would like to hear from you.