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Column: How a president should respond to domestic terror or hate crimes


What was to be expected to be a beautiful October week escalated into three separate hate-filled crimes in a 72-hour time period. 

First, on Thursday, Oct. 25, two black senior citizens, Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Lee Jones, 67, were fatally shot at their local Kroger grocery store by Gregory Bush, a 51-year-old white man. After fleeing the scene Bush was briefly stalled by an armed bystander. The bystander’s son recollected that Bush told his father, “Whites don’t kill whites,” in an interview with Wave 3 News. 

On Friday Oct. 26, around a dozen active pipe bombs were sent to various Democratic officials and Trump-criticizers. The packaged bombs were sent to former president Barack Obama, 2016 election candidate, Hillary Clinton, CNN’s New York headquarters, and many others. Florida resident, Cesar Altieri Sayoc, 56, was suspected for the numerous federal crimes. Recently photos of Sayoc’s van circulated through the media, and the van was plastered in Trump endorsement sticker and media criticism decals.

And finally, on the following morning, Oct. 27, “Armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday morning, killing at least 11 congregants and wounding four police officers and two others,” The New York Times reported.

In situations like these, in events of mass panic and terror, the president’s initial statements often direct the emotions of the rest of the country.

"When people do this, they should get the death penalty," President Trump said in response to the Pittsburg shooting. "Anybody that does a thing like this to innocent people that are in temple or in church ... they should be suffering the ultimate price, they should pay the ultimate price."

Trump also noted gun control "has little to do with it" but "if they had protection inside, the results would have been far better."

NBC News reported, Trump called the sending of the bombs to Democratic officials a “despicable” act that has “no place in our country” and vowed that “swift and certain justice” would be delivered.

All of these statements share one common theme: the president focuses on the perpetrator and their punishment. Trump criticizes their actions, often in an emotional and confrontational tone. 

Of course the criminals deserve punishment, and of course their actions were wrong.

What Trump usually fails to focus on is the victims and those related to them.

In comparison to Trump's statements, former President Barack Obama once said in response to The 2015 Roseburg shooting: "Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,” he said. “It’s not enough. It does not capture the heartache and grief and anger that we should feel. And it does nothing to prevent this carnage from being inflicted someplace else in America -- next week, or a couple of months from now.”

Following the events of the shooting, The Los Angeles Times reported Obama went on a "condolence mission" to the grief-stricken community, where he met privately with victims of the shooting.

Obama acknowledged the hardship that the families of victims are experiencing, which Trump really doesn't. 

The president may not have the time and resources to visit everyone affected by a mass shooting, act of terrorism, or hate crime. However, his public statement should address the severity of the situation while also maintaining focus on the lives that are lost and those who are affected.

The Guardian cited Michael Cornfield, associate professor at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management saying, “President Trump has departed from the way most presidents behave when there’s an act of domestic terrorism, anger is the fire of politics, and fire can be productive and useful or it can get out of control.”

Anger can inspire hate, even when used to criticize those who enact violence. Instead of placing a target on the heads of criminals, terrorists, and extremists, the victims and their families should be the center of the statement. 

This doesn’t mean sending “thoughts and prayers.” 

It means directly involving oneself with the victims and their families through your statements. Trump’s anger-fueled statements will change the emotions of the public, perhaps acting on feelings of hate and doing something drastic to reinforce a political belief.

If the president is truly serious about stopping crimes like these, he must learn to be passionate without anger.