The virus is spreading worldwide faster than our ability to contain it.
No, not that one.
I’m thinking about the tragic and shocking events that took place on Wednesday night nearly 4,000 miles away in the German community of Hanau, not far from the city of Frankfurt. Around 10 p.m., a man walked into a popular hookah lounge called the Midnight Bar in Hanau’s central square and began firing at the bartender and patrons, most of Turkish descent. Then the gunman fled to a second bar in a nearby town and repeated the carnage.
In all, nine people were slaughtered. The mass murderer then returned home, where he killed his own mother, then himself. The details that then emerged about the gunman, identified by German authorities as 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, will be numbingly familiar to anyone who’s followed the growing spate of mass shootings here on American soil.
The killer left behind the almost obligatory manifesto and videos trying to explain his inexplicable bloodshed targeting Germany’s immigrant community. Indeed, the murderer’s manifesto reads like a greatest-hits package of atomized white male grievance in the 21st century; it blended his inability to have relationships with women, in keeping with the so-called incel movement, with deeply disturbed paranoia about remote mind control and hatred of various immigrant groups as well as the Islamic religion.
But what the manifesto really showed was that, when it comes to hate in the internet age, it’s a small world after all. For all its insanity, there’s very little difference between the ramblings of this mass murderer and the white supremacist who less than a year ago shot up two mosques in New Zealand and live-streamed it as he killed 51 people, or the Texas man whose hatred of Mexican migrants inspired the slaughter of 22 inside an El Paso Walmart.
Trapped in a psychological void on the other side of the world, a German killer was very much influenced by his understanding of politics in the United States. Echoing other mass-murder manifestos, he was fascinated by the rise of Donald Trump and what that said about white supremacy. In addition to supporting Trump’s scheme to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, the Hanau gunman argued the 45th president should "take the helm since his personality makes him the person most capable of setting the agenda in the U.S.”
He also cited off-the-wall conspiracy theories that will be familiar to anyone here on American soil who’s watched whackjobbery like the internet fake-scandal called QAnon or its cousin, the invented Pizzagate affair, take root among impressionable conservatives. Specifically, the mass killer believed that a sex cult is flourishing at underground military bases. “In some of them, they worship the devil himself,” he wrote. "They abuse, torture and kill little children.”
It’s the kind of thinking that screams out for mental health treatment but which, in 2020, might get one, in his or her "Q" T-shirt, a front-row seat at a Trump campaign rally.
There was only one thing even more striking about the Hanau murders than the spreading virus of right-wing hate toward immigrants, racial minorities, and women as it leaps, pandemic-like, from nation to nation. That’s the utter lack of media coverage here in the United States. Sure, there were distractions — important ones — including the 2020 presidential primaries and the alarming authoritarian power-grab of an acquitted and revenge-seeking Trump.
Over the last decade we’ve seen CNN, Fox News and other networks give breathless breaking-news-chyron, wall-to-wall coverage of various mass shootings, stabbings or truck attacks on pedestrians across the European continent and in the United Kingdom — but only when those attacks are carried out by Islamists. An attack by a right-winger against mostly Muslim victims barely dented the bottom of the hour.
That’s disgraceful — and arguably racist. And it’s also a little bizarre because you’d think that anyone who knows the last 150 years or so of world history might think that rising right-wing extremism in Germany would have some echoes suggesting this is a major story. The German chancellor Angela Merkel — whose looming retirement has heightened concerns about rising right-wing political movements in her homeland — certainly got the message, denouncing the “poison” of racism in a statement that didn’t dent the American consciousness.
It’s hard not to believe that — with our ADD-addled ability to focus only on the latest outrage of the last hour — we are missing the most alarming and important trend of the last decade. That would be the rise of violent, brownshirt-style, right-wing global extremism and the concurrent era of authoritarian-style rulers on every continent, whose angry rhetoric toward migrants, ethnic minorities or women inspires these terrorists. The world’s indifferent response to similar trends in the 1930s led to global conflagration in the 1940s. Are we repeating those mistakes in the 2020s as we fail to connect the dots?
The echoes of gunfire in Hanau had barely died when Trump departed on a junket to India for two days with his authoritarian identical cousin, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who in Trumpian fashion has solidified his support and his (successful) reelection on support from a fundamentalist base of his own religion, while marginalizing others. While Trump promulgates his travel ban that largely targets arrivals from majority-Muslim countries, Modi forced through a citizenship law that discriminates against India’s sizable Islamic minority.
In breaking naan with Modi, Trump is indulging a love affair with a global league of extraordinarily bad gentlemen — Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, etc., etc. — that isn’t just a personality quirk. Instead, Trump and his dictator friends are creating a feedback loop that is giving aid and comfort to every right-wing wacko who shares their beliefs in nationalist or ethnic supremacy and demonizing The Other.
It can’t happen here? It already is. This weekend — during a Google search for something completely different — I stumbled across a gobsmacking phenomenon also getting zero, or close to zero, coverage in national media. In rural Virginia counties, in a state where control of the legislature has flipped to Democrats during the Trump era, armed men are walking into county commission meetings demanding permission to form militias, urging sheriffs to resist any gun-control laws, and calling for secession into more conservative West Virginia.
In Wise County, Va., about 50 members of an outfit calling itself the Wise County Patriots Group, many of them wearing stickers readings “Guns Save Lives” (paging Mr. George Orwell), flooded the county board to demand creation of a militia that would be, in the words of one activist, “a thumb in the eye” of Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. In nearby Charlotte County, Va., two brothers armed with rifles and wearing camouflage stormed into the commissioners’ meeting to make the same type of demand.
“I mean, all hands on deck, we bring that, I mean, we do what we have to do, and we’re looking for leadership, and it’s not just myself there are thousands of us who want to see that done,” the rambling armed interlocutor, Bernie Rose, told the county board.
In the conversation between people saying America is hurtling toward a second civil war and people wondering what that would even look like ... what’s happening right now in rural western Virginia is what that looks like. And the nightmare that just happened in Germany is what the internet-fueled virus of weapons, bigotry, and hate speech looks like on a global scale.