It was a bloody weekend America may never forget.
The nation fell into a troubled sleep on a Saturday evening in early August, still unnerved by a mass shooting earlier that day at a shopping center in the border city of El Paso, Texas.
We awoke the next morning to news of even more bloodshed — this time, a young man with a gun run amok overnight in Dayton, Ohio.
And now we count the dead, pray for their souls, and raise our voices first in pain and then in anger and ask “why?”
What has happened to our America? Why did a 21-year-old white kid from a Dallas suburb slaughter families shopping for school supplies in a peaceful Texas town full of Hispanic pride? Why did a brother kill his sister and eight others while they were out for what was supposed to be an evening of fun in an Ohio community still reeling from a series of early-summer tornados?
It took the Dayton shooter only 32 seconds to take those lives before he was killed by police. His motive is still unknown.
In El Paso, the death total was 22. This time, the motive was hate.
“I’m the shooter,” the gunman declared as he surrendered to police. The arrest report says he told them that he came to kill Mexicans.
It wasn’t long before he was linked to a long diatribe that was posted online shortly before the shooting warning of a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Some of the language seemed familiar — as if it was taken from the scripts of a couple of well-known conservative talk show hosts. But his words were also similar to those found in various Twitter rants in which President Trump warned of the threat posed by undocumented immigrants trying to cross our southern border.
“It’s an invasion of drugs and criminals and people… And in many cases, you have murderers coming in, and we are not going to allow that to happen,” Trump once said.
Donald Trump may not have pulled the trigger, but there seems little doubt that the President has stoked divisions that can result in violence, like the hate crime in El Paso. He sets the tone.
And the tone he struck after that bloody weekend was awkward at best. Some would call it worrisome. Others would describe it as typical Trump.
“Never in my political lifetime has an American president had less moral standing to address a national threat,” wrote columnist Michael Gerson – a former top White House aide during the George W. Bush administration.
In a speech to the nation on the Monday after the bloody weekend, Trump — clearly reading the words carefully composed by his staff — said, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy.”
Those comments rang hollow for Mike Gerson:
“Nearly every phrase of President Trump’s televised response to the EL Paso and Dayton shootings could be matched with some discrediting contrast in his own voice,” Gerson said.
That voice has been shrill, void of empathy and yet somehow comforting to those attracted to the audacity of Donald Trump.
The “Presidential” Trump that delivered that speech was soon replaced by the real thing. It didn’t take long before he was back on Twitter lashing out at his political opponents and the news media.
So much for a Presidential reset.
This, at a time when more and more Americans are coming to terms with the fact that the United States— which has the world’s worst gun problem — is also dealing with a hate problem.
In the last 20 years, there have been 88 mass shootings in this country with four or more victims.
In the last 18 months, white-extremist shooters have killed more than 60 people in seven events, including the attack at the El Paso Walmart and a synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Each time, a community grieves, a nation mourns, and politicians send messages with “thoughts and prayers” but offer little if any action.
But the two massacres in one weekend — both in heavily conservative states — may have been a tipping point. Perhaps Americans have finally had enough.
When the Republican Governor of Ohio – Mike DeWine — went to address the residents of Dayton, he was met with shouts from the crowd. “Do something! Do something!” they yelled.
DeWine responded with some new ideas for gun control in his state. Before long, President Trump followed suit, promising some incremental federal action.
It’s worth noting that he has promised such moves before, only to change his mind later on.
He didn’t mention the issue a few days after the El Paso and Dayton massacres when he boarded Air Force One to make a condolence call to the two cities.
In both towns he visited with survivors and local officials — at least those who would agree to see him. The sessions were declared private and reporters were kept away while a White House media team recorded the events for posterity and quickly posted videos and photographs on social media.
The White House wanted to portray an image of an empathetic leader trying to bring the country together.
Instead, that image was drowned out by the reality on the ground.
In El Paso, residents of all sorts of ethic backgrounds — white, black and brown — gathered at a local baseball field to send a message to Donald Trump.
Local author Richard Parker — who has written books about Texas, its politics and its people — put it this way in an essay for the New York Times:
“… in the human cycle of grief, the fear, disbelief, and anxiety has transformed into a seething anger. El Paso is not a volatile, rioting city where the President would expect trouble. But he inevitably saw how alone he was in his toxic, racist politics.”
The President fumed that the media coverage of the trip was not to his liking. But there was little he could — or would — do to address the raw emotions in both El Paso and Dayton where horror had turned to despair and then anger.
And yet there is hope that maybe things could change… that if enough Americans keep telling their elected leaders to “do something,” they will finally respond.
The mayor of Dayton says her constituents are proof of the potential.
Nan Whaley met with the President during his condolence call, though some residents had urged her not to do so.
She hoped to change his mind about reviving the ban on the military-style assault weapons so often used in mass shootings.
And she told a reporter something that spoke to her resiliency and that of her very American community:
“Every mayor wants something good to happen out of something bad.”