On October 1, 2017, at the height of a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip, Stephen Paddock, 64, opened fire from his hotel window across the street on a crowd of 22,000 concertgoers. The attack killed 58 people and wounded 546 in the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States.

People visit a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, October 6, 2017. (AP/John Locher)

People visit a makeshift memorial for victims of a mass shooting in Las Vegas, October 6, 2017. (AP/John Locher)

Approximately an hour after the massacre, Paddock was found dead after shooting himself in the hotel room, where police found no less than 23 weapons, including semi-automatic rifles. According to estimates, Paddock used a special device called a “bump stock” to fire faster, allowing him to unleash 90 rounds in only 10 seconds. All 23 weapons, including the additional device, were legally purchased and passed all background checks required by federal law.

Racist remarks from presidents and world leaders legitimize incitement and acts of violence and can lead to the oppression of minorities. As we have often seen in the past, incitement arouses dark and lowly impulses, and words can kill.

The Las Vegas massacre was carried out by a sick and disturbed man, who was, without a doubt, the main culprit in this atrocity. However, without detracting from his personal responsibility for his shocking actions, it is important to note that Paddock did not live in a vacuum; the terrible violence he exhibited didn’t come from nowhere. Understanding the context—the political, social and media environment—in which the massacre was carried out, is critical to understanding this event and hopefully preventing its recurrence in the future.

So, what enables and even encourages people to commit acts of violence in today’s reality?

We live in an age saturated with shallow, violent and racist political remarks, made not only by a radical and impassioned public, but also by those with power and authority. These remarks legitimize hatred and acts of nationalist rage, reduce the level of public discourse, establish norms of superficial thinking and open the gate to a flood of extreme and unfounded claims. All this empty virulent speech kills tolerance and causes more and more people to belittle others, especially minorities, and develop a dangerous sense of superiority.

Trump-Endorsed Racism

The two main fundamental rights that many Americans will defend with great fervor are freedom of expression and the right to bear arms. When these two rights are realized, the gap between violent words and violent acts naturally closes, and for this reason it is very important to caution against inciting speech. However, under the current administration, in the name of freedom of expression, we are witnessing a disintegration of verbal caution and responsibility, and a renewed growth of government-endorsed racism.

shimon sheves - las vegas shooting - racist administration

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As the leader of the ‘free world’ and the president of a country built on immigration, one would expect Donald Trump to display a certain degree of caution and sensitivity in the face of racism and hate crimes. Yet Trump himself plays an active role in leading the dangerous public discourse; he makes racist comments and incites violence. On more than one occasion he has made sexist remarks about women, or referred to Mexicans as “rapists,” “criminals,” “murderers,” and generally “bad, just bad”. He also seems to feel no obligation to speak the truth or to base his remarks on facts.

And how does he react to hate crimes? Well, just a few months ago, in response to the car-ramming attack in Charlottesville, Trump said that he condemned any form of hatred and violence on both sides. Ostensibly, a balanced and moderate statement, but taking into account that the rally was racist, anti-Semitic and violent and that the casualties were demonstrating nonviolently against rising racism, it is easy to see that this “moderation” does nothing more than legitimize hatred and violence.

Trump Is Not Alone

There are plenty of leaders like Trump who use incitement and hate speech and encourage rivalry to preserve their political power. This pattern of leadership is making the world increasingly violent.

In Turkey, for example, hate speech and calls to restrict women’s freedom are on the rise. The brutal physical violence against women is gaining substantial support from the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who stated unequivocally that “women are not equal to men.”

In England, Nigel Farage, former chairman of the UK Independence Party, was quick to label a car accident in London a “terrorist attack”, a remark clearly intended to sow fear and hatred and advance Farage’s own political interests.

The words of a leader carry great weight. They have the power to lay out a path, to change the language. Racist remarks from presidents and world leaders legitimize incitement and acts of violence and can lead to the oppression of minorities. As we have often seen in the past, incitement arouses dark and lowly impulses, and words can kill.

Certain members of the government bombard the country with sharp words, allow and encourage incitement, and personally incite against every possible minority by manipulation, intimidation and abusing their status. Why?

Trouble at Home

In Israel, too, as in the rest of the world, the current leadership is preoccupied with dangerous incitement. We all remember Bibi Netanyahu’s racist remark on election day, “the Arabs are streaming to the polls in droves,” a statement aimed only to recruit additional voters to the Likud through intimidation. Like the British Farage, Gilad Erdan was quick to label the accident in Umm al-Hiran a terror attack in order to advance his and his party’s interests.During a demonstration against African migrants in south Tel Aviv, MK Miri Regev called the asylum seekers “cancer”. This racist remark clearly intensified the demonstration, which ended with an assault on asylum seekers and the throwing of a stun grenade at policemen.

Failure to Learn from the Past

On November 1st, we will be commemorating the life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin who was assassinated 22 years ago by a despicable man as a result of political verbal incitement that was given a green light from certain members of the then opposition. Against the background of this terrible murder, insensitivity to the power of incitement is more jarring than ever.

A memorial candle shines at the ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination at the president's residence in Jerusalem, October 25, 2012 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A memorial candle shines at the ceremony commemorating the 17th anniversary of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination at the president’s residence in Jerusalem, October 25, 2012 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

 

Today, the government itself uses the same technique of incitement. We live in a volatile environment and sensitive times. However, instead of expressing themselves with a measure of caution, certain members of the government bombard the country with sharp words, allow and encourage incitement, and personally incite against every possible minority by manipulation, intimidation and abusing their status. Why? To safeguard their power. This is profoundly irresponsible.

The Right to Hate

Incitement is the provocation of unlawful behavior. It can be a direct call to violent action or an expression of hate-based criticism, racism or antisemitism, that implies the legitimacy to carry out violent action. Incitement to racism, violence and/or terrorism stands in stark contrast to the Penal Code, which is the heart of criminal law in Israel, and constitutes a criminal offence. However, the mechanism of incitement is elusive and effective. It often operates under the guise of freedom of speech—sharp verbal opposition, demonstration and legitimate criticism.

And the law, despite its severity, lacks a clear-cut definition. It seems obvious that words that are used for sole purpose of castigating and spreading lies against an entire community should be considered inciting, yet where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and incitement? At what point does preserving the peace and dignity of the public end and the damage to democracy begin?
Many will use this lack of clarity to unleash expressions of hatred and verbal violence. They will emphasize the rights and personal responsibility of every citizen in a democratic country. After all, it is simpler and easier to adhere to the vagueness than to try and draw a line in the sand.

Clearly, we are each responsible for our own actions. But the leadership is responsible for the actions of many people. Leadership has more influence, more power. I am not claiming that anger must not be expressed, that acts of terrorism must not be condemned, but the line between legitimate anger and responsible self-defense, and vengeful nationalist violence has long since been crossed. Incitement has become the language of government. Blaming an entire community for an isolated event has become routine, and derogatory generalizations have become part of the poisonous political jargon. And what is the outcome? More anger, more hatred, more violence.