Donald Trump’s attempts to use the gruesome terrorist attack in New York City last week to score political points were despicable. Within hours, he started to call for an end to “CHAIN MIGRATION” and for the abolition of the green card lottery. He promised to step up extreme vetting and boasted of hitting ISIS “much harder” in retaliation. (Why, one might wonder, wasn’t he hitting ISIS that hard to begin with?)
All of this made it even more galling when—at least on this one issue—Trump miraculously transformed into a bland, old-fashioned Republican in response to the mass shooting at a Texas church on Sunday morning. “May God be w/ the people of Sutherland Springs,” he wrote on Twitter, sounding uncharacteristically restrained.
For good reason, the outrage at both reactions—and at the discrepancy between them—has managed to achieve a feat that fewer and fewer things seem capable of these days: It united liberals and the far left. Both liberal and left commentators eloquently denounced attempts to let the New York attacker’s backstory drive our attitude toward migration policy. Likewise, both liberal and left commentators have rightly pushed back against ridiculous claims that debating gun control would be an unacceptable way to “politicize” such attacks—and skewered the pretense that nothing can be done about them.
All of that is, of course, spot-on. Trump really is shameless. And the right’s refusal to debate the link between the easy availability of deadly guns and the harrowing frequency of deadly shootings really is egregious. The intellectual dishonesty and political self-dealing on display in both instances was genuinely shocking.
At the same time, I have, over the past week, found myself wondering whether some liberals and some leftists may not, at times, be guilty of a parallel form of dishonesty and political self-dealing.
I first started to think this a few hours after the attack in New York, when lots and lots of people on my Twitter and Facebook timelines expressed shock and horror at the idea that one might reasonably come to the conclusion that this was likely to be a terrorist attack. I found this strange, even when all we knew was that a truck had barreled through a bike path and a pedestrian area for miles on end. While a bizarre accident, or a surprising motivation for the attack, could not yet be ruled out at that point, anybody who had followed the recent attacks in Nice and Berlin, in London and Barcelona, obviously had good reason to surmise that the events in New York would likely turn out to be the work of a Jihadi terrorist.
Once news accounts suggested that the attacker had shouted “Allahu akbar” at the scene, I found it downright bizarre how many people still refused to accept that the event in New York should likely be described as a terrorist attack. “COME ON,” one viral tweet proclaimed in seemingly obligatory all-caps, “MUSLIMS SAY THIS EVERYDAY IN PRAYER.” While that is undoubtedly right, the insistent denial of the fact that, in this particular circumstance, this particular phrase did most probably imply a political motivation for the attack seemed deliberately obtuse. Since people knew that Trump would try to take political advantage from a terrorist attack, they were clearly willing to grasp at even the most remote straws to pretend that this wasn’t one.
After the Texas shooting, a more sophisticated form of denial was on display even more widely. If the New York attacks were widely considered terrorism, the argument goes, it is obvious that the Texas shootings should also be considered terrorism. Indeed, this line of thinking implied, the only real difference between the two was the skin color of the attacker. In other words, anybody who called New York an act of terrorism but wasn’t willing to apply the same moniker to Sutherland Springs was basically a racist. “If it’s a White Dude,” a viral tweet summed up the emerging consensus, “it’s mental illness. If it’s a Brown Dude, it’s a terrorist. Totally unacceptable.”
Unfortunately, things aren’t as simple as that. While there is no one definition of terrorism, most experts agree that attacks need to have at least two features to be classified as one: First, they need to inflict indiscriminate violence on civilians. And second, rather than “merely” being motivated by personal revenge, they need to pursue some kind of political goal. Now, it is clear that Sutherland Springs gruesomely fulfills the first of these criteria. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that it fulfills the second. Indeed, while some mass shootings on American soil, like the one Dylann Roof perpetrated at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, clearly have had political goals, many others, possibly including the recent shooting in Las Vegas, do not.
So why does it matter if one attack was terrorism while the other was not? Perhaps there is no reason to treat mass killings of civilians differently when they do have a political motive than when they do not. Or perhaps we should broaden our definition of terrorism by dropping the requirement that it should have a political motive. I’m open to hearing arguments on both counts. But to pretend that either of these claims is so obviously true that anybody who disagrees with them must be acting in bad faith (or be a bad person) is not to make an argument; it is an exercise in blatant—and blatantly self-serving—gaslighting, worthy only of Congress members who rely on National Rifle Association donations for their re-election.
Speaking of the NRA, the thing that most obviously and viscerally infuriates the members of my political tribe about the right-wing response to Sutherland Springs is the idea that there’s nothing we can do to stop this sort of thing from happening in the future. Since putting real restrictions on guns is not up for debate, they would have us believe, there is simply nothing we can do about this kind of thing. And so, just as though this was an earthquake or a bizarre accident, the best we can do is to pray for the victims. That, I whole-heartedly agree, is simply outrageous.
But are we not in danger of adopting a somewhat similar approach, replete with similarly unthinking clichés of our own? After all, terrorist attacks in the hearts of our cities are now common enough that we too have developed a pat playbook for how to respond. When we see the horrible headlines, we vow that New York or Paris or Berlin shall never change—and celebrate people for carrying on with their lives as though nothing much had happened. While the left tends to go a little easier on thoughts and prayers, the last week has made me think that its growing determination to treat the threat of terrorism as just a fact of modern life about which nothing much can be done is more similar to the right’s attitudes about mass shootings and gun controls than I’m comfortable with.
So if we want to win the debate over terrorism—and make sure that the right won’t be able to use future attacks to justify hateful statements and discriminatory policies—we need to offer our own ideas for how to prevent such attacks. To echo the right’s response to the Texas shooting by saying that terrorist attacks are a new fact of life to which people will have to simply resign themselves just isn’t good enough.