Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families. We cannot put into words the grief and pain we all feel.” This is how President Donald Trump began his response to the news that 26-year-old Devin Kelley used a submachine gun to kill 26 people in a Texas church on Sunday. We, too, grieve at what appears to be the deadliest shooting in Texas history.
One month ago Stephen Paddock stood in a Las Vegas hotel window and mowed down hundreds of people with a cache of semiautomatic weapons, killing 58 and wounding 546. It was labeled the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Trump reacted with praise for first responders and a call for prayers. Again, a measured and reasonable response.
However, on Oct. 31, when a man in a rented van killed eight people and injured 11 others by ramming them on a crowded Manhattan street, there were no calls for prayer from the president, and there was no expression of national grief. Instead, Trump tweeted that he would “love to send the NYC terrorist to Guantanamo” and that he “should get death penalty!”
So what accounts for the difference in the president’s responses? Could it really be because the New York suspect is an immigrant and a Muslim, and the killers in Texas and Las Vegas were not?
Sayfullo Saipov emigrated from Uzbekistan in 2010, and is suspected of being radicalized online by the Islamic State. His profile fits a wholly different narrative, and led Trump to call on Congress “to immediately initiate work to get rid of” the Diversity Lottery Program that supposedly provided Saipov with his original immigration visa. And he blamed the situation on Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who was a sponsor of legislation to create the program in 1990 — even though Schumer was part of the Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that in 2013 proposed ending the program as part of overall immigration reform. That bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
The pattern of the president’s reactions is disturbing. When a white man commits mass murder, the president calls for prayer. When white supremacists and neo-Nazis wreak havoc and death in Charlottesville, Va., the president refers to some of them as “fine people.” But when a radicalized Muslim immigrant kills pedestrians in New York, Trump calls for the death penalty and seeks to tighten immigration — consistent with the distressing pattern of demonizing Muslims and victimizing non-whites.
The United States is not, and must not be, two countries — white and everybody else. The proper response to national tragedy is of course support and prayer for the victims, along with heartfelt and rational policy pronouncements, which might include immigration reform, a tightening of gun regulations, greater use of community policing or strengthening mental health care. But it is just plain wrong for the response to be driven by the ethnicity of the wrongdoer.