I understand what Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf was trying to do with his statement immediately following Saturday’s mass murder at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. When he said, “These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans,” he was saying that this horrific event ― a hate-fueled massacre of innocents in an American house of worship ― does not reflect our national character. And I get it. It’s gut-churning to think what happened there is a reflection of all of us, as opposed to the work of a lone, depraved actor.
But here’s the problem: It is who we are. Or, at least, a large part of who we are.
Now, I’m not saying every American is a gun-toting mass killer who spews anti-Semitic hatred online. But, as soothing as it is to think of the events in Pittsburgh as something outside of our national identity, this simply isn’t true. Gov. Wolf’s line, which he repeated in a press conference, is a statement of fantasy, not fact.
As soothing as it is to think of the events in Pittsburgh as something outside of our national identity, this simply isn’t true.
This attack was fueled by religious prejudice. And we are a nation with hate and prejudice encoded in its DNA. If you don’t believe me, read about the three-fifths clause of the Constitution, or the slaves who helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol. Study virtually anything about this nation’s treatment of Native Americans. Brush up on the Chinese Exclusion Act or Japanese internment or anti-LGBTQ+ violence. Go to the newly opened National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors “thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States,” or read about the spike in anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, including a swastika painted on a sign at a temple in Rhode Island just a few miles from where I live. This is who we are.
We are also a nation that glorifies guns. Today, there are more than 390 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S., which, as The Washington Post recently noted, is “enough for every man, woman and child to own one and still have 67 million guns left over.” America is a land of gun festivals and gun museums and gun-toting church services and phones that look like guns and guns that look like phones. We are a country where politicians fire guns in campaign ads and presidential candidates tweet photos of guns etched with their name, along with the simple caption: “America.” Our largest and most outspoken pro-gun organization has its own TV network. In 2016, 37,000 people died in this country from gun violence, second in the world behind Brazil. This is who we are.
Our gun obsession and refusal to significantly regulate firearms have led ― predictably, you might say ― to a string of mass shootings in almost every conceivable public place: nightclubs, elementary schools, high schools, community colleges, state universities, military bases, supermarkets, airports, nursing homes, Planned Parenthood clinics, cafes, IHOPs, Waffle Houses, coffee shops, malls and hotels. According to Mother Jones, There have been more than 100 of these events (indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims) since 1982, and Saturday’s attack wasn’t the first mass shooting at a religious site in recent memory. Think of the 2012 attack at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, or Charleston in 2015, or Sutherland Springs, Texas, where, less than a year ago, 26 people lost their lives in a Baptist Church.
The Pittsburgh shooting wasn’t even the only act of hate-fueled violence last week. On Friday, the FBI arrested a suspect in a hate-fueled mail bombing campaign targeting CNN and anti-Trump political figures, including two former presidents. The shooting of two African Americans by a white man in a Kentucky supermarket earlier in the week is now being investigated as a hate crime, which, if true, would make it part of a rising trend of hate crimes. This is who we are.
Again, I’m not saying that all of us are hateful and violent, or that American history is filled solely with scenes of hate-fueled horror. (Although there sure are a lot of them.) But I am ― emphatically ― saying that, in October of 2018, when a public official responds to a hate-fueled mass shooting by denying its place in our society, it defies reality. Too many people have been lost to similar acts to keep saying that; it dishonors their memory to ignore glaringly visible patterns. We need to be honest, even when it makes us uncomfortable. We are long past the time for platitudes.
And I don’t mean to pick on Gov. Wolf, because the problem is much bigger than him. We boast about our freedom while locking people up at a higher rate than any other country. We talk about our superior quality of life while we face more than a trillion dollars in student debt, stagnant wages, and dropping life expectancy. One of our most highly paid media personalities apparently just learned that it’s not OK to wear blackface on Halloween. We excel at delusional self-flattery.
But it’s time to stop.
Hatred and violence and firearms are deeply embedded in our national psyche. For the sake of you, me, and everyone else in this country, I wish this weren’t true ― but that’s different from saying it isn’t true. If we truly want to become the country Gov. Wolf describes, we first need to face reality: This is who we are.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.