When hate speech turns violent

Safya Khan-Ruf - 09 11 18

The consequences of hate speech left unchecked have never been more evident than in the last fortnight.

A white man shot and killed two African-Americans in Kentucky after failing to enter a black church. A man with a history of spewing hatred online against minorities and the Democrats was arrested for sending pipe bombs in the mail to several of those who had been a target of US president Donald Trump’s criticism (this included Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George Soros and John Brennan). A third man shouted anti-Semitic slurs and opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people.

All three acts occurred within 72 hours, and only days before midterm elections that have been characterised by rhetorical othering and hate. But the issue runs much deeper that what experts deemed the most violent election campaign season in living memory.

A portion of the blame falls on Trump, who has fuelled a climate of hatred by repeatedly claiming that the media and his political opponents are enemies of the people, and that violence is an acceptable form of dealing with them. This was evident after the Charlottesville rally where Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist and he failed to condemn it, ‘both-siding’ the event. 

Trump’s rhetoric is being used by a man convicted of plotting to blow up a building apparently home to Muslim refugees during the 2016 election. Patrick Stein’s lawyers filed a memo stating Trump’s comments on the campaign trail should be seen as the backdrop for Stein’s action:

“The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president.”

The attorneys argue that Stein, who had a lifelong struggle with substance abuse and two failed marriages, was particularly vulnerable to this sort of rhetoric and that his fear of Muslims and false beliefs about the Quran came “directly from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage.”

People with a platform who normalise hate speech is the reason HOPE not hate has been campaigning against serial criminal Stephen Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, from entering the US to speak at a conference.

Stephen Lennon

The conference would give the former head of the English Defence League a veneer of respectability by allowing him to appear alongside members of Congress, potentially net him over £1m via fundraising and give him a wider platform to push his anti-Muslim agenda.

An Early Day Motion in the House of Commons signed by nearly 50 MPs is also calling on the British government to urgently make representations to the US Administration urging it to maintain a banning order on Lennon (due to his past convictions, including entering the US on someone else’s passport).

Preventing hate speech, not giving platforms to the divisive messages of the far right and condemning politicians and media who give into it, has never been more important.

How we classify these crimes is also important. The suspected mail bomber, Cesar Sayoc, is unlikely to be charged with terrorism and this follows a pattern. The 1995 Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was convicted of murder, while the Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was convicted of federal hate crimes – neither of them were charged with terrorism.

While the two clearly met the US definition of terrorism, the federal government does not officially designate domestic terrorist organisations or individuals (although almost 70 foreign terrorist organisations have been designated).

If Sayoc had waved an IS flag, he would have been much more likely to be charged with terrorism.

Right-wing extremists were responsible for the largest number of deadly attacks in the United States since 2001, according to the Government Accountability Office, but the same crime is labelled and tried differently depending on the ideology behind it. Calling Robert Bowers, the man responsible for the mass shooting inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, “a terrorist” is important. The label carries powerful stigma and isolates him from potential supporters.

It is also important to note that despite the violence committed last week, there were also acts of heartening solidarity and a strengthening of interfaith bonds.

The Muslim American community has rallied behind their Jewish neighbours with a Muslim group in the US raising more than $110,000 (£85,732) for those affected by the synagogue shooting. The initial target, to raise $25,000 (£19,500), was hit within just six hours.

Record crowds of both Jewish and non-Jewish people also went to synagogues across the world over the weekend to show solidarity as part of the #ShowupforShabbat campaign.

The response shows that for every empty platitude from a politician or media personality that has fanned the flames of hate, there are ordinary citizens ready to life each other up.


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