Editor’s Note: Beto O’Rourke is an El Paso native, the former US Congressman for the community and a Democratic candidate for President of the United States. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
When a white terrorist drove more than 600 miles to hunt and kill Hispanic people in my hometown, he followed a path of vile inspiration that reaches from the darkest chapters of our history and runs directly to the White House today.
Mass shootings, like the murder of 22 people in El Paso on August 3, are not caused by video games. They are not simply caused by mental illness. And we should not be surprised that this kind of violence eventually found our community. In today’s America, it was only a matter of time.
Racism and anti-immigrant hysteria have long shaped the tragic side of our American experience, but the spread of racism and violence now takes a new form that departs from our history.
When President Donald Trump describes Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “bringing crime,” or refers to undocumented immigrants as individuals who “infest our country” – he speaks not as America’s President but as an emissary of hate. And his vilification and fear-mongering connect with those who are open to receiving it.
The seeds of terror we saw that August day are transmitted day and night on Fox News, the most watched cable news channel in the country. They are amplified by right-wing websites like Breitbart, and in messages forced onto local news broadcasts by Sinclair Media.
They metastasize on Facebook. And they filter up from grotesque online havens for white supremacists who preach intolerance and worship violence.
At a rally in Florida this past May, Trump asked how America could stop immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees from coming into the country.
“Shoot them!” someone yelled back.
As the crowd roared its approval, the President smiled and brushed the comment aside.
Every media outlet that covers Trump’s rallies uncritically is serving dangerous ends. This language of fear and intimidation is not, as some would have it, simply political theater; it actually changes our behavior. Counties that hosted a Trump rally in 2016 saw a 226% increase in hate crimes, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. And we’ve seen a rise in these kinds of crimes since Trump’s been a candidate and in office.
Within 24 hours of Trump signing an executive order attempting to ban people from seven Muslim majority countries in January 2017, the mosque in Victoria, Texas, was burned to the ground. After he warned of waves of asylum seekers coming to get us – and entertained the lie that George Soros, a wealthy Jew, was financing a migrant caravan – a man walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and murdered men and women over a fear of Jewish-financed caravans.
Right before a terrorist came to our community to kill 22 innocent people, police believe he wrote a manifesto that used the President’s language of “invasion.” The President used the word “invasion” to describe immigration in over 2,000 ads on Facebook. He also used the words “predator,” “invasion,” “alien,” “killer,” “criminal” and “animal” while discussing immigrants at his rallies more than 500 times.
As long as the President employs this rhetoric, and as long as it is tolerated or ignored by so many, tragedies like these will continue to tear our country apart.
We must call on Republicans in Congress to put country before party by holding Trump accountable. We must implore members of the press to stop musing about whether or not the President is racist. We must ensure that a democracy that has been captured and corrupted by the NRA can summon the courage to pass common sense measures like universal background checks, red flag laws and a ban on assault weapons – proposals which the majority of Americans agree should be in place. As president, I would work with Congress to create a system of federal licensing requirements, which states would implement and have the ability to go beyond.
But none of this will happen until something much larger changes.
Wherever I travel, I always tell people about my love for El Paso. I tell them we are a diverse and safe city – and that the two are very much connected. We’ve learned to not only tolerate our differences, but to embrace them as fundamental to our success and our security. El Paso’s story is quintessentially an American story: We are a city of immigrants, situated proudly at the border of this nation of immigrants.
Recently, I was in New York where, over a century ago, America opened its gates to the teeming masses of the world at Ellis Island. Today, the Statue of Liberty beckons to the world from here in El Paso, at every port of entry, and shines light upon every bridge across the Rio Grande. When the President demonizes and stirs up hatred against immigrants, he is not only attacking my hometown – he is attacking the very meaning of America.
I believe El Paso can light our path forward, even as America now stands in sympathy and solidarity in its hour of heartbreak and anger. But for good to prevail, we need to bring every single one of us in. That means refusing to let hate win or to quit on our fellow Americans.
In this great democracy, the power still rests with the people. And it is on all of us, individually and through the institutions of the press and Congress, to decide what this country will stand for at this defining moment of truth.