Much has been written about the ties that bind the world’s great monotheistic religions — things like the power of love and tradition.
Now there is another. Since the dawn of this century, we have all become the victims of unbelievable terror. The world has looked on in horror as Jews, Christians and Muslims have been slaughtered in prayer by those whose only belief is in the theology of hate.
Charleston… Quebec City… Pittsburgh and now, Christchurch. In all these cases, worshippers were murdered by white supremacists who turned themselves into killing machines.
We mourn… we ritually clean the bloody bodies… we bury the dead. But do we do anything to try to really stop this cycle of unthinkable violence?
If we do, perhaps we do not do enough because these incidents keep happening again… and again… and again.
And now they are happening in the age of social media — a time when the perpetuators of hate can find support for their demented beliefs online. In 2019, they can post manifestos and videos that quickly make their way across borders in a media-hungry world.
The suspect in the latest shootings — the twin ambushes of worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand — took this to a new level. He wore a live video camera on his helmet that sent images to Facebook as he entered his car… counted his guns… calmly drove to a mosque… and began to systematically shoot one victim after another, including someone who greeted him warmly at the door with the words “come in, brother!”
The man who mistook him for a fellow worshipper — 71-year-old Daoud Nabi — was the first of the 50 Christchurch victims to be identified. There were many more.
Like the shooters who massacred innocents in an African-American church in Charleston, a mosque in Quebec City and a synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh, the killer in Christchurch was captured and charged with murder.
We know his name but the New Zealand government has urged everyone not to say it, lest we give him the notoriety he so craves.
They are still reeling in New Zealand and they are likely to do so for some time. This is a country known for its low crime rate — the 50 people murdered there in this one day killing spree exceeded all the murders reported nationwide in 2017.
It is one of the last places in the world where you might expect to see such a display of extremist hate. And in their response, the “Kiwis” — as they are called with great affection — are sending a message to the world.
They are not just offering ”thoughts and prayers” — the standard reaction to mass shootings here in America. Instead, the government of New Zealand has been leading both by example and by action.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — her head covered in an hijab and her face showing her nation’s pain — has been reaching out to the Muslim community, going to the homes of the victims to offer condolences. Her message has been consistent and simple: “You are part of us.”
It was Ardern who declared the name of the shooter would not be uttered. And within 72 hours of this act of terrorism, she had done something that would be unthinkable after a mass shooting in the United States — she won agreement to tighten the nation’s gun laws.
President Trump, speaking at a White House event hours after the massacre in Christchurch, expressed sorrow for the victims. He was then asked “Do you see, today, white nationalism as a rising threat around the world?”
His answer was very telling. “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems,” he replied.
His supporters deny the president has done nothing to encourage the white nationalist movement here and abroad but his words tell another story. He is not part of that movement, but the shooters in both Pittsburgh and Christchurch were clearly inspired by his comments.
There is a video of one of his campaign rallies a few years ago where someone in the crowd says to Trump: “… We have a problem in this country… It’s called Muslims… When can we get rid of them?”
Trump nods in response and replies: “A lot of people are saying that… We are going to be looking into that.”
Since then, we have had the Muslim travel ban… a continuing rant against refugees… and his refusal to initially speak out against a massive white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Meanwhile, the hate mongers have been busy recruiting on the internet — using sophisticated technology to lure in new followers.
Kevin Roose— who writes about technology for the New York Times — put it best. In a column published in the aftermath of the New Zealand massacre he wrote:
“The internet is now the place where the seeds of extremism are planted and watered, where platform incentives guide creators toward the ideological poles, and where people with hateful and violent beliefs can find and feed off each other.”
The fact is that the perpetrators of hate now have two kinds of weapons at their disposal: guns and the internet.
We used to talk only about controlling access to firearms — and New Zealand is showing that with political will, steps can be taken by governments to curtail their use for violent ends.
But controlling cyberspace is much tougher. Twitter, Facebook and the like have all vowed to police their sites, but they always seem to be one step behind the hate mongers. When Facebook moved, for example, to take down the video of the Christchurch shooting from the perpetrator’s helmet-cam, viewers quickly found ways to repost it. In all 1.5 million videos of the shooting rampage were removed from Facebook alone in the first 24 hours after the attack.
Think about that number: 1.5 million.
And then there was the 70-page-plus manifesto the shooter posted online across various platforms — part of a social media trail designed to spread his poison to anyone willing to login.
This may be our greatest challenge as we seek to prevent more deaths fueled by extremist hate. And this time, the onus is not just on governments, but the giant tech companies as well.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister has demanded answers… so have some members of the U.S. Congress. So far, there has been nothing from the Trump administration, though there are indications individual states may be preparing to take action against mega-companies like Google and Facebook.
The challenge is great. And while we wait for solutions to the issues posed by big tech, maybe we should all take the time to look for answers in our own hearts.
In my hometown, where they are still mourning the worshippers slaughtered last October at the Tree of Life synagogue, members of the Jewish community remember how local Muslims offered aid at their darkest hour.
After the Christchurch shootings, I got a message from a rabbi in Pittsburgh that I know well. His congregation will be gathering this Friday at a nearby mosque in an act of shared grief.
Yes, we need to find a way to “fix” the internet and keep guns out of the hands of those who would shoot up a church, synagogue or mosque anywhere and at any time.
But like those who will gather this Friday at that Pittsburgh area-mosque, we also have a message to send with our very lives.
John Lewis, the civil rights icon and congressman who once worked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., explains the task before us this way:
“If we are to build a society at peace with itself, we cannot sow seeds of hatred and division. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear, love is the only way.”