Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“This was calculated, it was cold-blooded, it was motivated by this deep-seated racial animus.” Those were the words of Thomas T. Cullen, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Virginia, after James Fields – the white supremacist who two years ago on August 12 murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia – was sentenced to life in prison. And as I’ve seen first-hand, white supremacists are indeed calculated, cold-blooded and motivated by hate – but most are not ravaged by mental illness as some have claimed, and as Donald Trump suggested Monday morning in his speech on the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
Trump, while rightly condemning white supremacy, wrongly used words that painted a picture suggesting that mental illness was involved in the actions of 21-year-old Patrick Crusius, who shot to death 22 people in the El Paso shopping center on Saturday. (It could turn out that he has mental disorders, but there’s no evidence of that yet.) Trump declared that white supremacy and hate “warps the mind.” Speaking about this shooting and the one Dayton, Ohio, early Sunday morning, he said, “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger. Not the gun.”
As barbarous as acts like the El Paso shooter’s are, white supremacists are not raving, grotesque monsters, as Trump implied on Monday. They look like normal people and make what they believe are reasoned decisions. That’s one of the many things that make them so toxic to our society. To dismiss their attacks as a product of mental illness is not only wrong, it makes us less safe as a nation. Mental illness, by Merriam-Webster’s definition, encompasses a range of medical conditions that are identified primarily by their “disorganization of personality, mind or emotions.” White supremacists, on the other hand, are defined by their organized thoughts, their conscious embrace of a hateful ideology.
First, it must be made absolutely clear that people with mental illness are not more violent than others – in fact, according to the Trump administration’s own website on mental health, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.
And as we have seen as a society and as I’ve personally experienced, so many white supremacists have not been unhinged, but rather have been dangerously calculating in their actions. In my case, in May 2017, three months before the Charlottesville terrorist attack, I wrote an article for The Daily Beast calling on Trump to use the words “white supremacist terrorism” after several murders had been committed by self-professed white supremacists early in Trump’s presidency. Apparently my article outraged Andrew Anglin, the creator of the Neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, and a person who – according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – had posted hundreds of articles during the 2016 campaign in support of Trump.
Anglin’s response to my attacks on his beloved Trump was anything but unhinged. It was instead calculated to silence me by invoking my Muslim faith. Anglin fabricated tweets that appeared to come from me, where I claimed responsibility for an ISIS bombing in Manchester, England, that had taken place a short time before. The tweets he created used a smattering of Arabic words and words associated with Islam to make them look more authentic. Then Anglin wrote an article for his white supremacist publication claiming I was a terrorist and urged his followers to “confront me.” In response, as Anglin had clearly hoped, I received death threats from his readers. (I filed a lawsuit against Anglin in federal court for defamation and for emotional distress, which I won in June.)
That same level of calculated conduct can be found with the El Paso gunman, who wore hearing protection during the shooting to buffer the loud sound of his gun being fired in an enclosed mall, brought extra magazines of bullets and coordinated the release of his racist manifesto online just minutes before the attack. And he apparently drove 10 hours from his home in the Dallas area to El Paso, likely to be near the Southern border, from which he believed the “Hispanic invasion of Texas” he mentioned in his racist manifesto was emanating.
We saw similarly premeditated conduct with then-21-year-old Dylann Roof killed nine black people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015, in the hopes of starting a “race war.” After his arrest, Roof stated he picked that historic black church because, in his view, “black people are killing white people every day on the street, and they’re raping white women.” Roof was deemed competent to stand trial by a federal judge, and after he was convicted and sentenced to death for his horrific crimes, he stated, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still do feel like I had to do it.”
White supremacy and the terrorism it incites is real. And the approach to defeat it must be more than a handful of words from Trump in a speech. (Trump, though, has still not uttered the words “white supremacist terrorism.”) Trump must dedicate the full resources of our government to eradicate it the same way our government goes after ISIS. Anything less means we will be discussing another deadly white supremacist terror attack on US soil in the near future.