WASHINGTON – In far-flung cities, deadly violence ripped apart the most typical of American spring weekends, driven by rage or madness, the bloodiest by suspected racist hate.
The crime scenes represented a cross-section of ordinariness — a grocery store in upstate New York, a California church, a Texas flea market, the streets near a basketball arena in Wisconsin.
The carnage Americans see on their screens is not from an invading force. It is from within. The United States is a cauldron of seething grievances and poisonous social media conspiracy theories that have even gained purchase with some in power.
There is, by now, a pattern after mass shootings — shock, thoughts, prayers, vows to do something, then collective slumped shoulders as attention moves on and it becomes clear nothing much will change.
Americans are still in the first phase as they absorb the aftermath of the past weekend of violence, which coincided with a COVID-19 death tally that reached 1 million in the U.S.
“I’m trying to bear witness but it’s just too much,” Buffalo, New York, resident Yvonne Woodard said of the rampage Saturday outside Tops Friendly Market. A young white man wearing body armor and livestreaming with a helmet camera opened fire Saturday, killing 10 Black people. “You can’t even go to the damn store in peace,” Woodard said.
You can’t go anywhere in peace with certainty today in this country of howling political and cultural animus, ubiquitous guns and murder rates surpassing those in most of the industrialized world.
Not to a Houston flea market, where thousands were browsing Sunday when a gunfight broke out, killing two people, injuring three and panicking bystanders.
Not to church, where on Sunday a man opened fire during a lunch reception in Laguna Woods, California, killing one person and wounding five before a pastor smashed the gunman’s head with a chair and parishioners tied him up.
Not to Milwaukee's downtown, where authorities declared a partial curfew for the weekend after three shootings injured 21 people near an entertainment district where thousands had gathered for an NBA playoff game. Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Indianapolis are among cities that saw record numbers of killings last year, most involving guns.
In Laguna Woods, police said Monday, the gunman was a U.S. citizen who immigrated from China and was motivated by hate for the Taiwanese community, whose members were attending the church.
Americans have a president who, like him or not, is good at empathy and having to tap that quality more than anyone would want. Joe Biden goes to Buffalo on Tuesday to offer comfort to bereaved families and to address, yet again, “the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America.”
Biden is the second president in a row to warn of existential threats to the American fabric.
Donald Trump startled dignitaries on his 2016 inaugural stage with his talk of “American carnage,” a stark portrait drawn from urban poverty, rusted factories “scattered like tombstones,” crime, gangs and drugs.
Biden's portrait is dark in different respects, centered on the systematic effort by Trump and now his allies to upend election laws and processes, based on false allegations of a stolen 2020 election. Add to that a toxic brew of conspiracy theories on race and immigration that authorities say fanned the Buffalo massacre.
Payton Gendron, the 18-year-old suspect, is believed to have written a document in the possession of police that laid out an attack intended to terrorize nonwhite, non-Christian people and get them to leave the country.
The document counts Black people and immigrants as “replacers,” drawing from the “great replacement” racist conspiracy theory spread by fringe groups that elites are plotting to diminish the influence of white people by increasing the minority population. The theme is a staple on some Fox News programming.
Sanitized versions of that claim have gained currency among some Republican lawmakers who have accused Democrats of encouraging illegal immigration from Latin America to gain more voters and pull off a “permanent election insurrection," as GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York put it in a campaign ad last year.
That's worrisome to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, once a senior member of the Republican congressional leadership and now an outcast due to her pushback against the election falsehoods that powered the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and continue to be spread by many of her colleagues.
“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism,” she tweeted Monday. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”
The conservative lawmaker implored her party's leaders to “renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
Yet the tenets of replacement theory resonate with many Americans.
In a poll last week, The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about 1 in 3 Americans believes an effort is underway to replace U.S.-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gain. A similar share endorse the view that immigration is weakening the political, economic and cultural influence of those born in the U.S.
There was a note of hope. Two-thirds said a diverse population makes the U.S. stronger.