We live in dangerous times, and it won’t take much to destroy the accomplishments of generations. This much is clear after the mass shootings last week in El Paso, Texas. Twenty people were killed, and 26 more wounded, by a young white male. It was an act of domestic terrorism by a white supremacist, people were quick to assert.
Not so fast.
Although police are still investigating, the narrative arising from the killing is clear enough. Twenty-one-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas, is suspected of driving 10 hours from his home to El Paso, tucked along the border with Mexico. Just minutes before the shootings, he is believed to have posted a manifesto of sorts online to explain his violence.
"I'm probably going to die today," he says, in a post entitled “The Inconvenient Truth.” The screed protests against an Hispanic invasion, and justifies the shooting by saying ““if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”
As The New York Times reported: “The El Paso shooting, if the manifesto is linked to the gunman, potentially underscored the global spread of white supremacist ideology in the age of social media and at a time when immigration in America and elsewhere has become a divisive political topic.”
Is Crusius a “white supremacist”? Is defending your way of life a sign of craven “nationalism”? I have my doubts.
I keep thinking of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian writer best known for a short book entitled The Prince, a realpolitik primer on how to rule. But Machiavelli wrote a longer, and lesser known work, entitled The Discourses. It was an extended commentary on Livy’s History of Rome. What could Livy teach Italians of Machiavelli’s time about how to unite a people?
What can Machiavelli teach us?
Machiavelli warned about conflicts driven by mass migration where “an entire people, constrained by famine or war, leave their country with their families for the purpose of seeking a new home in a new country … when an entire people aims to possess itself of a country and to live upon that which gives support to its original inhabitants, it must necessarily destroy them all.”
Our debate about immigration is fueled by mass migration to this country. That migration is a product of climate change, violence, poverty and lack of opportunity elsewhere. Given our history, we should open the borders and let everyone come, the better to build a stronger, more diverse nation, or so the argument goes.
Folks like Crusius aren’t so sure. They’re afraid that we cannot take care of folks already here; welcoming more to our shores could make a difficult situation worse. At what point do we say to the teeming nations of the world, “time out,” we need first to cure what ails us before offering aid to any and all?
Yes, Crusius is a white male. In the emerging narrative of our times, he possesses “white male privilege,” an existential chit that gives him a leg up in terms of life chances. Fairness demands that he recognize the privilege and accept the claims of others who don’t possess the privilege. Distributive justice requires that he yield pride of place to the historically disadvantaged.
Put another way, Crusius has been put on notice: What you have taken for granted is not so. Your identity is a social problem. You must take account of the claims of others; justice requires that you yield pride of place, and, perhaps, even pay reparations to those who have not enjoyed your historic advantages. We’re gonna balance history’s scale right now.
And here’s the kicker: If Crusius raises questions about these new and novel claims of social justice, he is labeled a supremacist. It’s small wonder that in a world in which being a white male has come to be regarded as morally suspect, some white males lash out, even violently.
Identity politics are a cancer that will erode the social and moral ties binding the republic. I don’t owe you a thing on account of my race, or yours. Reparations? That’s a race-based tax that I simply will not pay. Ever.
I doubt that Crusius is a white supremacist. I suspect he is scared, however. The changing political rhetoric of our time is fueled by demographic change – Caucasians will soon become a minority in the United States. As emerging minorities claim their due, a fading majority looses its hold on what it took for granted.
This will, of course, yield fear, resentment and anxiety. Unless we find a way to build bridges by a vision of something broader and more enduring than mere identity, we will divide, fracture and fail. Machiavelli saw that.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, St. Paul wrote in his letter to churches in Rome. The profound truth of Catholic theology is that we’re all sinners in need of grace. Identity is a form of idolatry, of the pot claiming entitlement because of the potter’s choice of clay.
One can defend oneself without being a supremacist. I don’t know Crusius, but I don’t see white supremacism, I see another scared sinner, defending with violence against what he fears. I doubt his life was simple; telling him what he owes you to simplify yours isn’t justice, it’s a shakedown.
There will be more shootings of the sort that took place in El Paso. If there are enough of them, we might come to call it a civil war. Crusius, like the election of Donald Trump, was a canary in the mineshaft.
Breath deeply the fumes of our identitarian discontent. Then ask yourself, is this the future you want? There has to be a better way.