We were warned.
Charles M. Blow
An April assessment by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis said pointedly: “Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States.”
Slowly, but steadily, these bigots are slithering from beneath their rocks, armed and deadly.
The most recent was an octogenarian-hater named James von Brunn, who, officials said, opened fire this week in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, killing a security guard.
Just as disturbing as the incidents themselves are the lineups of family, friends and neighbors who emerge to talk about the vitriol they heard and the warning signs they saw. I always want the interviewer to stop and ask them this simple question: “And when he said or did that, how did you respond?”
I would ask: What did you say or do as the shooters retreated into their xenophobic silo and consumed the bile slouching about the Internet? What did you say or do as the darkness in their hearts obscured the light of their reasoning, and the vacuum of hate consumed them?
My suspicion is that far too many do far too little.
While many might say that they would be quick to condemn and excoriate such hatred, they can often passively condone and fail to expostulate the hater when they see it firsthand.
That’s the gist of a January study that was written about in ScienceDaily. It was led by Kerry Kawakami, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, and it found that although people predicted “that they would be very upset by a racist act and would take action,” their actual reactions were “much more muted.” Why? Because people are “much less willing to pay the emotional cost” of the confrontation than they thought they would be.
The authorities won’t be able to stop every “lone wolf” with a gun and a gripe. But we, as a society, can do a much better job of creating an environment where hateful beliefs are never ignored and suspicious behavior never goes unreported.
In 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a letter from a Birmingham jail, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” That’s still true.
Hateful people are loud — to disguise their cowardice and shame. But good, decent people are by far the majority, and we dare not be silent. There can be no family too close and no friend too dear for hatred to go unchecked. Allowing it to do so diminishes the better, more noble parts of ourselves.
These confrontations won’t be easy, but doing the right thing rarely is. There is someone reading this column who knows someone who could be the next shooter. What will that reader do?
Charles Blow is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. This column was reprinted with his permission and ran originally in the 6/12 Times: “I invite you to visit my blog, By the Numbers. Please also join me on Facebook, and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”