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Analysis

A Killing Spree Born of Racist Rhetoric

The Buffalo murders are the consequences of our political rhetoric and policy choices.

May 17, 2022

You’re read­ing The Brief­ing, Michael Wald­­­­­­man’s weekly news­­­­­­­­­­­let­ter. Click here to receive it every week in your inbox.

Today, four days after the murders in Buffalo, above all we stand united in grief and anger and solid­ar­ity with the famil­ies and community that were attacked.

But this was a polit­ical crime. And it’s not wrong, not prema­ture, to point to two inter­twined polit­ical sick­nesses that helped cause it. 

One is the embrace of nakedly racist rhet­oric by signi­fic­ant parts of our polit­ical system. The murderer drove hundreds of miles to target a store in a Black neigh­bor­hood, having been radic­al­ized by the perni­cious “great replace­ment” conspir­acy theory. As has been widely discussed in recent days, this is not just some­thing heard in fringe chat groups. It is espoused by the highest rated show on cable news, garbage spewed into the world by wealthy corpor­a­tions and by lead­ing politi­cians inter­ested only in their own power. Ideas have consequences, words have consequences. White suprem­acist viol­ence is the result — in Buffalo, in Char­lottes­ville, in Pitt­s­burgh, in Char­lotte, in El Paso.

As Rep. Liz Cheney, the former House Repub­lican Caucus chair, put it, “The House GOP lead­er­ship has enabled white nation­al­ism, white suprem­acy, and anti-Semit­ism. History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.” 

The other polit­ical sick­ness is our broken polit­ical system’s inab­il­ity to do some­thing about the surge in gun viol­ence and the profu­sion of weapons. There are now an estim­ated 400 million guns in the United States. The killer took advant­age of porous laws and poor enforce­ment. 

What happened in Buffalo showed the hollow­ness of the argu­ments by National Rifle Asso­ci­ation lobby­ists over the years. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun,” they claim, “is a good guy with a gun.” A child­ish analysis, yes, and also wrong. There was a good guy with a gun: the guard, heroic former Buffalo police officer Aaron Salter, who shot the murderer. But his bullets were deflec­ted by body armor that is legal in all 50 states. Our laws have consequences.  

As I wrote last week, the U.S. Supreme Court likely will soon strike down New York State’s century-old gun laws. Such a Second Amend­ment ruling would likely have a bigger impact than D.C. v. Heller, where the Court for the first time enshrined the notion that the Second Amend­ment protects indi­vidual gun owner­ship. More guns will mean more crime in crowded cities. As New York City Mayor Eric Adams poin­ted out yester­day, there are every­day massacres. Describ­ing an 11-year-old girl killed in the Bronx, “pain is pain.” 

These massacres can numb or they can clarify. They can depress us or remind us of what’s at stake. A quarter-century ago, the Oklahoma City Bomb­ing shook the coun­try and brought many to their senses. Will that happen today?  

At moments like this, we must stand together as a community, with one another. We must unite against hate. We will fight for a more just vision for our coun­try and our state, a vision of a vibrant multiracial demo­cracy where we live in peace with one another, which must be our future.