- Lois Beckettsenior reporter for The Guardian covering gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States.
Domestic terror swept the country last week, when a white gunman stormed a peaceful synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 peaceful worshipers in what has been described as the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The attack came a day after an avid Trump supporter in Florida was arrested and charged with mailing bombs to more than a dozen of the president’s prominent critics, and three days after a white gunman fatally shot two African Americans at a grocery store shortly after trying and failing to enter a black church. We speak with Lois Beckett, a senior reporter for The Guardian covering gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States. “The shooter in Pittsburgh was not just anti-Semitic,” Beckett says. “He had been radicalized by white supremacist ideology.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we continue our coverage of the right-wing terror incidents across the country in the last week. Eleven worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue were killed Saturday in what has been described as the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The Pittsburgh attack came a day after an avid Trump supporter in Florida was arrested and charged with mailing bombs to more than a dozen of the president’s prominent critics, and three days after two African Americans were fatally shot at a grocery store shortly after the gunman tried and failed to get inside a black church. A witness told a local newspaper the gunman said to him, “Whites don’t shoot whites.”
AMY GOODMAN: As President Trump prepares to travel to Pittsburgh today, Pittsburgh’s mayor and some Jewish leaders are urging him not to come to Pittsburgh. A group told the president he’s not welcome in Pittsburgh until he, quote, “fully denounces white nationalism.” A former president of the Tree of Life synagogue described Trump as a “purveyor of hate speech.”
For more, we go to Oakland, California, where we’re joined by Lois Beckett, senior reporter at The Guardian covering gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States.
Lois, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what has happened this week, the weapons used, the people behind these attacks?
LOIS BECKETT: In the discussion that we’ve had over these three incidents, and especially these two shootings—one in which the gunman looks like he initially tried to target a church and another an attack on a synagogue—we’ve often been talking about this in terms of hate or political rhetoric. And what’s really important to advance the discussion is to look at the evidence that the shooter in Pittsburgh was not just anti-Semitic, that he had been radicalized by a white supremacist ideology. We saw in the criminal complaint against the Pittsburgh shooter that he told a SWAT officer, while in custody, that he had wanted to kill Jews because Jews were trying to commit a genocide on his people. This is the central conspiracy of contemporary white supremacist movements in the United States, the idea that there is a massive plot to make white people extinct and that everything from immigration to accepting refugees to feminism to multiculturalism, that they’re all part of this plot.
It’s really important that we condemn hate, but hate is too general, and this conversation has been really treating some of these incidents as if they were just terrible people with separate terrible ideologies. And certainly in the case of the Louisville shooting and the Pittsburgh shooting, a sociologist who studies white supremacy told me we should look at both of these shooters as radicalized white supremacists, and that naming their ideology is an important part of preventing these acts in the future.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lois Beckett, both—in many of these cases, the folks are fed or nurtured through social media. In fact, many of their thoughts were—reporters initially got through checking their social media accounts. The New York Times has a fascinating story today saying that just since the shooting in Pittsburgh on Saturday, on Instagram there were over 11,900 posts with the hashtag #JewsDid911, so that there’s an enormous—social media is still becoming the main organizing form for many of these extremists. I’m wondering if you could comment on that.
LOIS BECKETT: It’s absolutely true that social media and online spaces have become really crucial places for radicalization. But it’s also important to realize that these social media platforms are tools that white supremacists are using to try to recruit and radicalize people. It’s not just sort of hate sort of mysteriously blossoming. These are organized white supremacist activists who are trying to exploit platforms and use them to connect with people, use them to find new followers.
And so, we can’t look at this as sort of just a broad problem of how do we fix social media, how do we fix Instagram, how do we fix Twitter. I think it’s important to really narrow the question and say Twitter, Instagram, Facebook are being exploited by hostile actors and by terrorists to recruit people who will commit violence. How do we focus on that particular problem? How do we—how do these companies take particular responsibility for white supremacist terror and how those terrorists are using their platforms?
AMY GOODMAN: The Robert Bowers account on Gab reposted another user, who wrote, “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy evil jews Bringing the Filthy evil Muslims into the Country!!” If you can talk about his link, Bowers’ link, a white supremacist’s link, between Jews and Jewish groups—we’re about to speak to a representative of HIAS. He particularly focused on this issue that a refugee resettlement organization was bringing what he called the “invaders.” And Brian Stelter of CNN just looked at Fox News and other right-wing outlets, and saying the level of times that they are talking about invaders, just in the last few weeks, has so escalated. And Bowers himself said, “I like” the way they’re changing the language of aliens, illegal aliens, to “invaders.” And it’s this link of immigration, as President Trump now, even as he goes to Pittsburgh, tries to divert attention to the border, saying he’s sending the 5,200 soldiers to the border—soon, on the border, there will be more soldiers than in Iraq and Afghanistan—sending more than 5,200 soldiers to the border and also saying he plans to, through executive order, end birthright citizenship.
LOIS BECKETT: Amy, you’re pulling all of these incredibly troubling threads together, and it’s really important to recognize that the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was an attack on Jewish people—and the obituaries of the people who died are just heart-wrenching—but an attack on Jewish people for supporting refugees, an attack specifically targeted at an organization that was helping have Shabbat ceremonies in honor of supporting refugees, and drawing on the Jewish history of persecution to emphasize how important it is that people who are fleeing violence and terror elsewhere in the world, that we have the capacity to welcome them and give them a safe place, and that that is a moral duty.
And in talking to a representative for HIAS, the particular refugee organization that the shooter named and that he said fueled his rage, that he shared a link to synagogues that were hosting these kinds of events, you know, she said that they’re still wrestling with what it means to be targeted with violence, particularly for fighting for this basic humanity, for treating other people with basic humanity. And that is what is so incredibly tragic here, that this congregation and these people were targeted because of their humanitarian impulses, because of support for Jews, for refugees, for people of color. And that is overwhelming.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Anti-Defamation League has found that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose by 57 percent in 2017, the largest single-year increase since it started recording such statistics. I’m wondering if you—your sense—and this is, of course, not an isolated situation here in the United States. There’s been a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across Europe, as well. I’m wondering if you could talk about the context in which this is occurring, as more and more right-wing governments are coming to power across the industrial world and even in many parts of Asia and Latin America, as well.
LOIS BECKETT: Yeah. So, obviously, the context of rising anti-Semitism is very disturbing. And what was particularly striking about Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, is that in looking at his online profile on Gab and the posts that he made, it was clear that he was channeling a lot of very ancient anti-Semitism, that a lot of the tropes and the hatred that he was sharing are very—are centuries old, that this is not a new phenomenon, and the anti-Semitic violence is a very old and a very dangerous ideology.
But Robert Bowers was also someone who was actively in communication with other white supremacists, someone who was very familiar with the events of Charlottesville, where white supremacist groups marched through a university town with torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” And some of the statements that he made on his account suggest that he was familiar with those debates about what people who are white supremacists in America should do, the optics of different kinds of action, what’s going to be most effective for advancing his white supremacist beliefs—again, this belief in an all-white country, that the United States is only a country for white people, that other people should be shut out or don’t belong here or shouldn’t be allowed to have citizenship. And so, you saw him on this platform interacting, including interacting with other white supremacist activists.
I spoke to one activist who’s an anti-fascist from Charlottesville, who says that she constantly monitors Gab for the harassment of white supremacists, and she actually got some of these Robert Bowers posts, that she passed them by, she saw them, she has screenshots of a couple of them, but that the kind of hatred that he was spewing was so common on this platform, that there were so many dozens and hundreds of men sharing equally extreme racist propaganda, that nothing about what he had said had stood out to her. This was someone who had apparently harassed her directly in some misogynistic, nasty comments, and then appeared to go on to commit a mass murder at a Jewish synagogue. And she said she’s still wrestling with it, because what he said on that platform, the kind of hate that he was expressing, was so common that it didn’t stand out. It didn’t seem exceptional.
AMY GOODMAN: Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, speaking about what happened on Saturday, the synagogue attack, the darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history, but said armed guards are not the solution.
MAYOR BILL PEDUTO: I think the approach that we need to be looking at is how we take the guns, which is the common denominator of every mass shooting in America, out of the hands of those that are looking to express hatred through murder.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Mayor Peduto. He also said that President Trump should not come today to Pittsburgh, that they are busy burying the dead. This is President Trump right after the massacre, talking about armed guards.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better. This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect, but if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation. But they didn’t, and he was able the—to do things that, unfortunately, he shouldn’t have been able to do. I hear the police were outstanding. I heard the police did an incredible job. And as you know, numerous police were badly injured.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was President Trump calling for armed guards in the synagogues. Lois Beckett, if you could talk about this and also—I mean, as we’re talking about this violence, you have Greg Bush in the Louisville area, in Jeffersontown. He has numerous weapons. Not clear whether he has them legally. He had to hand them over because of his violent background. Again, so often, we see the links to domestic violence in their past. But why these men are able to have these guns? Of course, Bowers used an AR-15. These linkages to violence—and this might—you might think of as a stretch, but because you are a Guardian reporter, I’m thinking about your colleague Ben Jacobs, who was body-slammed by the Montana congressmember who had to plead guilty to criminal assault. And why I’m bringing that up now is President Trump, just last week, held a rally in Montana, where he applauded Gianforte for body-slamming your colleague at The Guardian, this in the midst of the investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, with President Trump taking the side of the Saudi leadership—not to mention the CNN mail bombs, and President Trump has not stopped attacking the media all week.
LOIS BECKETT: So, one thing I want to say that’s tremendously important, in these times where the amount of violence and the partisan intensity seems so overwhelming, is that being a gun owner in America is not a radical thing. In this country—this may not be—not everyone may agree with this, but in this country it is a normal thing to be a gun owner. Millions, tens of millions, of Americans own guns. Roughly a third of households are gun-owning households.
So I think it’s really important not to indiscriminately lump together a lot of different issues, but to say that there is a big difference between being a gun owner in America—and even being someone who is skeptical of new regulations, wanting to really understand how much that they will help—and being someone who is advocating, for instance, violence against a journalist, or thinking that it is funny or cute that a politician might physically attack a journalist who is trying to ask him a question about healthcare, that it might be appropriate to praise or to joke about that, a politician who then went on to make false statements to the police, whose spokesperson made false statements to the police about that attack and about who was responsible for it.
It’s just a time that there are so many different issues, and they’re so overwhelming, that the chaos is purposeful. But one thing that’s really important to remember is that there’s also tremendous advocacy. If you care about the issue of gun control, the students from Parkland, Florida, who survived the mass shooting at their school there in February, have been working since that time, all of these months, over their summer vacation, now into the fall. They have been traveling across the country, trying to get out the vote for other young people, working very hard to mobilize 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds, 20-year-olds, to bring this new post-Columbine generation, that is so frustrated with school shootings, that is so frustrated with active-shooter drills, and trying to get them to the polls.
So, one thing that’s incredibly important to remember is that this midterm elections, upon so many issues seem to be riding, is going to be a referendum on the future of gun control in America. And there are many organizations that are working very hard to vote out politicians that just absolutely refuse to pass any new gun control laws, and to bring in politicians that support gun safety and some additional regulations. And so, this is something that, you know, even though it’s not always in the headlines now, there is so much going on, that you should remember the Parkland kids are out there. They are fighting for this. And this is an issue that they’re working for at the polls. If this is an issue that you care about, there’s still time before the election to work on getting out the vote, to focusing on making sure the people that support the issues that you care about get out to the polls.
AMY GOODMAN: Lois—
LOIS BECKETT: So I think it’s really important to remember, in the midst of all of this incredible tension and violence, that there’s real advocacy work going on, and there’s collaborations going on. And the Parkland kids have collaborated with students from inner cities, students from many different backgrounds all over the country. They acknowledge the fact that it’s problematic that white suburban shootings get more attention than everyday shootings in urban neighborhoods. They’re working to lift up the voices of students of color who maybe don’t have CNN come to their doorstep when one of their friends dies.
AMY GOODMAN: Lois Beckett—
LOIS BECKETT: And so, what we’re seeing at the same time as incredible hatred is also a younger generation that’s really working to have a fairer, more equitable, more inclusive debate and to really lift up the voices of young people who say that this is not acceptable to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Lois Beckett, we want to thank you for being with us, senior reporter at The Guardian covering gun policy, criminal justice and the far right in the United States. We’ll be back in 30 seconds with a representative of HIAS. That’s the group that the Pittsburgh shooter cited, hated. Stay with us.