President Donald Trump has said two very different things about ongoing threats to Jewish Community Centers across the country and vandalism at Jewish cemeteries outside St. Louis and in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is a Democrat, told reporters that when he met with the president on Tuesday, Trump called these incidents reprehensible. But the president also suggested that they might not have been motivated by anti-Semitism, but by “the reverse,” in an attempt by his political adversaries “to make others look bad.”
Only hours later, the president took another stab at it and got it right. The first thing out of his mouth in his first address to Congress was that “Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”
He’s not alone in his inconsistency, though. The national conversation about anti-Semitic threats and the Olathe shooting makes clear that too many of us define hate crimes and terrorism in a way that depends on who committed the crime and who was victimized.
Some conservatives strenuously resisted the idea that a man who had made racist comments and told the two India-born men he shot in Olathe to “get out of my country” might have committed a hate crime. No, they argued, the shooting was instead caused by alcohol and psychological problems.
So, did the Olathe shooter remind them of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub last summer? Mateen, too, had a well-documented history of alcohol abuse and instability. But no, in that case, some on the right expressed little doubt that the crime was a terror attack wholly inspired by radical Islam.
There is also inconsistency on the left, where the carnage caused by Mateen, who had pledged his allegiance to ISIS, was widely seen as an anti-gay hate crime. Many focused on his bipolar disorder, along with the fact that both of his ex-wives had accused him of domestic violence, and acquaintances back to early childhood remembered him as a bully. And they asked how Islam could have inspired the massacre when Mateen was such a poor Muslim — one who sometimes drank himself into a stupor at the same gay club he later attacked.
Similarly, abortion opponents saw Scott Roeder, who shot Dr. George Tiller in his church in Wichita, as a nut acting on his own — by definition not pro-life after having killed a man. Those who support abortion rights tended to see him as a domestic terrorist carrying out the agenda of his ideology.
These arguments are essentially pointless, other than to identify where we’re coming from politically. Of course, it’s the unstable who are most likely to be recruited or self-radicalized into any terror or hate group, or to act on their beliefs in ways that appall most adherents of the religion or other group in whose name they commit indefensible acts.
And our time — and public dollars — would be far better spent trying to intervene early to identify and treat mental illness and substance abuse than arguing when it’s too late that a killer was “just a nut” rather than a domestic terrorist.