Words hurt and words can kill. The importance of words was the theme of the commencement address at the University of Michigan, where I teach, given last weekend by Anne Curzan, one of the university’s deans. Words, she said, carry weight.
Dean Curzan’s words take on heavy import at the trial that began last week of the man charged with shooting and killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh area synagogue in 2018.
News coverage of the trial has been rather underwhelming, maybe because other legal battles have been dominating the headlines. Perhaps we have grown weary under the weight of such tragedies after enduring 647 mass shootings in 2022. Or maybe the lack of media attention reflects the likelihood that we already know the outcome of the case. Because Robert Bowers was arrested at the scene following a shootout with police, the guilt portion of his trial seems like simply a prelude to the penalty phase, when the jury will have to decide whether to impose the death penalty.
But it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of this case. It is an indictment not just of Bowers, but of the forces that are dividing our society through a war of words.
According to the criminal complaint, Bowers, who is white, told police he wanted to “kill Jews” because they are “committing genocide against my people.” Minutes before the attack, he had posted online, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” On social media, Bowers had posted anti-Semitic slurs and blamed Jewish people for immigrant caravans.
Three subsequent mass shootings in the United States seemed to have been similarly motivated by fear of white replacement. In 2019, a white man opened fire at a California synagogue during Passover, killing one and injuring three. His online post stated that Jewish people were responsible for the genocide of white Europeans. Later that year, another white man killed 23 people in a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. In his manifesto, the shooter said he wanted to stop “the Hispanic invasion” of Texas. In 2022, a gunman killed 10 African-American shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo. The affidavit in support of the complaint in that case said that the defendant’s writings included “statements that his motivation for the attack was to prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar racially motivated attacks.”
While these mass shooters used guns to carry out their violence, they were inspired by words – the words that fuel the Great Replacement Theory. That theory posits that sinister forces, usually Jewish, are trying to replace white Americans with immigrants and people of color. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the origins for the theory trace back to early 20th Century France. Writers there feared that native white Europeans were being replaced by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, whose higher birth rates would cause them to one day outnumber white Europeans. In the United States, the Great Replacement Theory has motivated the white supremacy movement, whose motto is what they call “the 14 words”: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
The dystopian theory is based on some actual facts. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that white people will be a minority of the American population by 2045, the result of immigration, relative birth rates, and declining numbers of aging white baby boomers. Most Americans embrace the benefits of our growing diversity. But for some, the thought is a terrifying existential crisis.
Politicians and public figures who deliberately stoke divisions in society help drive this fear. In the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, white nationalists convened over the removal of Confederate statues and chanted, “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” Rather than condemn them, President Donald Trump implicitly validated their views, when he famously said that the rally had “very fine people on both sides.” In a 2020 interview on Fox News, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) referred to an “attempted cultural genocide” in the United States, and said the Left wanted to “replace America.” In 2021, Dan Patrick, the lieutenant governor of Texas, said the Biden Administration was using immigration policies “to take over our country without firing a shot,” and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that “leftists” were trying to “drown” out “classic Americans” with “people who know nothing about our country’s history and traditions.”
Fox News personalities used words to echo the refrain. In 2021, Tucker Carlson, then a Fox host, said that the Democratic Party was “trying to replace the current electorate — the voters now casting ballots — with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” In 2019, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro said, “Think about it. It is a plot to remake America, to replace American citizens with illegals that will vote for the Democrats.”
When some of us hear those kinds of words, we recognize the blatant racism and political opportunism. But when others hear it, they register a dire warning and a call to action. The trial unfolding in Pittsburgh is the consequence of their words.
In the United States, our right to free speech permits us to utter the words of our choice, with only limited exceptions. But as citizens, we have a duty to use that freedom with the responsibility that goes with it. By inciting hate, self-serving politicians and profiteering pundits are making America hate again. And with deadly consequences.