The attack represents a flagrant challenge to America’s core values — that people of every race or religion are endowed with the same inalienable rights. Suddenly, these fundamental beliefs are being tested in a divisive new political era that targets a shadowy concept of The Other: Muslims, Mexicans, Middle Easterners.
On Saturday morning — the Jewish Sabbath — a gunman shattered the sense of belonging for Jews in America, too.
Throughout history, anti-Semitism has often been an early indicator that extremist thought is gathering momentum inside a society or is being used as a political tool by those keen to exploit resentment or radical sentiment.
It is an increasingly urgent question whether President Donald Trump’s deliberately divisive politics may be giving license to extremists.
He cannot be accused of being directly to blame for horrific incidents like the one this weekend. And on Saturday, he delivered a welcome and passionate condemnation of the attack in Pittsburgh, calling anti-Semitism a “vile hate-filled poison” and “one of the ugliest and darkest features of human history.”
Hatred of Jews and refugees
Bowers also condemned the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which brings refugees to the US. His attack bears the hallmarks of an outrage motivated by hatred of Jews and refugees.
But it did not occur in isolation.
Recent years have seen a rise in anti-Semitic incidents across the country and the use of coded anti-Semitic imagery in material by right-wing politicians, including some prominent members of the Republican Party.
Yet most top political leaders have not yet felt the need to go out of their way to comprehensively condemn this new wave of extremist thought, despite evidence the problem is worsening.
Such figures suggest that while the United States has been seen as largely immune from anti-Semitic feelings that have long simmered in politics in some European nations, things could be changing.
Anti-Semitic themes have also been increasingly cropping up in political campaigns, raising the possibility that some leaders see advantage in using such imagery to connect to radical voters while preserving deniability.
Trump’s own daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner are practicing Jews. Many of Trump’s past business associates and lawyers are Jewish. So it’s not credible to argue he is an anti-Semite. Yet he still sometimes attacks Soros despite knowing that the Hungarian-born philanthropist is a hate figure and Jewish stereotype for anti-Semites and extremists on the far right fringes.
Trump: ‘There is no blame’
Hints of anti-Semitism are also evident in some other GOP messaging.
The recent incidents in Pittsburgh and elsewhere raise urgent questions about whether inflammatory rhetoric that appeals to extremists translates into violence.
Vice President Mike Pence denies any such link.
“Everyone has their own style, and frankly, people on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences,” Pence told NBC News in an interview Saturday. “But I just don’t think you can connect it to acts or threats of violence.”
Trump was asked on Friday whether he bore any responsibility after a Florida man, Cesar Sayoc, allegedly sent the mail bombs.
“There is no blame. There’s no anything,” he told reporters on Friday.
“The problem here is hate. The problem is there is a growing space in this country for hate speech and hate speech always turns into hate action,” he told CNN on Saturday night.
“We cannot stand by as individuals or organizations or as governments when people spew hatred against, Jews, refugees, Latinos, against any group that some see as the other,” Hetfield said.
Trump, who this week plans a major speech on securing the border, has used the idea that Americans are under threat from outsiders as an organizing principle of his campaigns.
So while his fervent condemnation of anti-Semitism sent a strong message, the President is on less firm ground on the question of whether his rhetoric is providing space and encouragement to extremist views.
“The problem is that Trump has made it clear since the campaign that the public he is speaking to, the public he wants to impress, that he cares about, is a public that is not interested in human rights, in democracy and in loving one’s neighbor.”