EL PASO - “I don’t know why he took my boy’s life,” Dora Lizarde said. Her grandson Javier, 15, was the youngest victim of last weekend’s massacre, killed by a bullet to the head. “Fifteen years old; he still had so much time to live,” Lizarde told me in an interview this week. “I don’t know why he took him away, I don’t understand. He is young, too.”
Patrick Crusius is young, too.
Police have charged Crusius, 21, in the mass shooting that killed 22 people at a crowded Walmart here on Aug. 3. Nineteen of the victims had Spanish surnames, making this the worst attack on Latinos in modern American history. The Mexican government has labeled the killings a terrorist act, given that eight Mexican citizens were among the dead. And, yes, it is a hate crime.
The massacre of Latinos in El Paso is the latest and most brutal reaction by a young, white American against a future that might be dominated by minorities. The fact that this attack happened is unsurprising: What else can we expect when racism and hatred of others is promoted from the top down in a country where there are more guns than people?
Authorities have said that Crusius posted a 2,300-word manifesto online minutes before the attack. In it, he said the attack was in response to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” “It makes no sense to keep letting millions of illegal or legal immigrants flood into the United States,” Crusius supposedly wrote, “and to keep the tens of millions that are already here.” Those words startled me — not only because they were so hateful, but because they could seamlessly fit into speeches given by President Trump, by some members of his cabinet and by many right-wing politicians.
While Trump insists that he does not have “a racist bone” in his body, his history of making racist remarks says otherwise. After years of suggesting that President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States, Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by likening Mexican immigrants to criminals and rapists. He recently said that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to the countries from which they came. The list goes on. When the most powerful man in the world uses such toxic rhetoric, we should not be surprised when others mimic him.
Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso and a Democratic presidential candidate, recently told me that he is convinced Trump influenced the attack. Mr. O’Rourke — who along with Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic candidate for the presidency, has said in recent days that Trump is a “white supremacist” — responded to a tweet from the president by writing: “22 people in my hometown are dead after an act of terror inspired by your racism.” Other leaders and politicians, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have also lost their patience with Mr. Trump. “I don’t want to hear the question ‘Is this president racist?’ anymore. He is,” Ocasio-Cortez said recently.
The president’s xenophobia, and that of many of his supporters and enablers, is rooted in a dread that the day is soon coming when they will be a minority in their country. While non-Hispanic whites remain a majority of the population in the United States, in less than 30 years that may no longer be the case, according to projections. This sort of demographic revolution is putting Americans’ tolerance to the test. Most of us welcome an increasingly diverse country, but many, like Trump, resist the country’s multiethnic, multicultural future. Some react by walking into a store and murdering innocent people.
The most racist Americans who are set on killing minorities are aided by the fact that they can easily obtain assault weapons in this country. I’ve lost count of all the massacres I’ve covered as a journalist. After each shooting — Columbine, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Parkland — I thought we might have reached the limit of Americans’ tolerance for such horror. But it wasn’t so. I fear that the killings in El Paso won’t change anything, and that I soon will be back on another flight headed to cover the next massacre. And then another. And another after that.
I have lost hope that the United States will ever pass laws that limit access to firearms. Like many parents around the country, I’ve had difficult conversations with my children in case they find themselves in a situation where someone is shooting at them. “Try to escape, hide or fight,” I tell them. “But don’t stay still. Gunmen have a lot of bullets, but not patience.”
Still, even if we could somehow solve our gun problem in America, our racism problem would be far more difficult to eradicate. Hate-group activity is on the rise, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. And anti-immigrant rhetoric has already appeared in slogans shouted during the 2020 presidential campaign.
I crossed the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, one morning this week. For many years, Juárez was considered one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico because of the presence of drug cartels. Yet on this visit some people I spoke with told me that they didn’t dare cross into El Paso with their families. When I asked why, some said that they feared being hunted for being Mexican, and all said that racism was a factor.
Nobody should live in fear because they are Mexican nationals in the United States or members of the Latino community. But that’s where we are now in this United States of Trump. The abundance of weapons of war on the streets and Mr. Trump’s unending racist rhetoric are indisputably connected to the massacre in El Paso. What happened in this city was a massacre foretold. Words matter. When they are filled with hate, they cause great damage.
This article was first published in The New York Times.