This weekend, 11 people were murdered at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The gunman made clear that his motive was to kill Jews. He raged online against Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and HIAS, which helps refugees build new lives in safety and dignity, and even cited an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that has been promoted in recent weeks by members of Congress and by the president of the United States.
This heinous crime did not happen in a vacuum. It was the product of a country led by those more interested in stoking fear and division than hope and unity, by those who believe in fueling hate instead of fighting it.
It wasn't always this way. Condemning hatred was once a bipartisan endeavor.
After the 9/11 attacks, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division received hundreds of reports of hate crimes and acts of discrimination committed against Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans, South Asian Americans, and others mistakenly perceived to be Muslim or Arab. In that moment of national tension and tragedy, President George W. Bush forcefully declared that America was not at war with Islam, and that Muslim Americans were loyal citizens who had suffered as we all did on that fateful morning. And Jewish organizations like the ADL passionately defended Muslim Americans against despicable acts of hatred by those who sought to blame them for the terrorist attacks.
As a former prosecutor of hate crimes, I’ve spent much of my career working with leaders in both parties to fight such bigotry. In fact, this past weekend marked the ninth anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act — a law I had the privilege of working on, and one that President Obama signed with bipartisan support.
Obama understood the responsibility of leaders to bring people together in times of tragedy and crisis. He understood that while leaders cannot prevent all incidents of violence and hatred, they can minimize them with their words and actions, and they can help build a society that values our diversity instead of demonizing it.
Our current president has taken the country in the opposite direction.
He and his allies have not only allowed hatred to go unchecked, they have actively encouraged and enabled its perpetrators. Last week, President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger welcomes baby boy Tennessee lawmaker presents self-defense bill in 'honor' of Kyle Rittenhouse Five things to know about the New York AG's pursuit of Trump MORE even promised to ratchet up his divisive rhetoric after many of his critics were sent pipe bombs by one of his supporters. And he has continued to attack journalists as the “enemy of the American people,” despite the fact that CNN and its contributors were among the attempted bomber’s targets.
This is not a matter of ignorance or naivete; Trump understands the power of the bully pulpit. But unlike his most recent predecessors, he is wielding his power in the wake of a national tragedy to divide instead of unite, to incite hatred instead of inspire hope, and to turn political opponents into national enemies.
This weekend’s tragedy and the pipe bombs sent to Trump’s critics are part of a growing pattern. Last week, in an incident that calls to mind the 2015 massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, a man in Kentucky shot and killed two African-Americans in a grocery store just minutes after he failed to enter a nearby African-American church. And over the past few years, hate crimes in America have skyrocketed, particularly against Jewish communities. Last year alone saw a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents, according to a report by the ADL.
Put simply: Words have consequences. Lies have consequences. And those consequences can be fatal.
Hate has gone mainstream with President Trump’s blessing, and those who harbor it feel more emboldened than ever. As ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt put it, “while the horror of this massacre is shocking, it is not entirely surprising.”
Consider what we saw last year in Charlottesville, where hundreds of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and Ku Klux Klan members marched in torchlight, unafraid to show their faces or shout their bigotry. They see the president as their fiercest defender, and they see the Republican Party as their home.
Make no mistake: Our nation faces a moral crisis, and the best way forward is to elect leaders with the moral fortitude to stand up to hatred, to pass common-sense gun laws that will make our communities safer, and to summon our better angels of unity and inclusion during challenging times.
When voters go to the polls next week, they will not only make their voices heard on critical issues like health care, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; bigotry will also be on the ballot. And as Americans, we need to follow the mission advocated by the very organizations the gunman targeted this weekend: to reject bigotry in any form, and to fight for the dignity all. In the words of HIAS President Mark Hetfield, “We [help others] not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish.”
On Nov. 6, it is our turn to help — because we are Americans. It is our duty to be the first responders our democracy needs by voting for the leaders we deserve.
In Judaism, it is custom after a person dies to say, “May their memory be a blessing.” We lost 11 lives on Saturday. May their memory not only be a blessing but a call to action: Fight hatred by helping others. Fight violence with your voice. Fight bigotry with your ballot.
Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE is the chair of the Democratic National Committee. During the Obama administration, Perez served as head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and then as secretary of Labor. Follow him on Twitter @TomPerez.