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UNITED STATES OF PAIN & APPREHENSION

After a week of fear and tragedies, Donald Trump once more abdicates his moral leadership duty

US President Donald J. Trump stops to speak with the news media before boarding Marine One on South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 26 October 2018. Trump was scheduled to travel to Charlotte, North Carolina for a campaign rally. EPA-EFE/ERIK S. LESSER

American society has been convulsed by the efforts of deranged, racist, anti-Semitic individuals to blow up a whole clutch of Democratic leaders, to kill black shoppers, and to murder Jewish worshippers on a peaceful Saturday morning. Where is the president as the national moral voice? AWoL.

At first, after all the bombs had been delivered to leading Democratic politicians and backers – including two former presidents – but had failed to explode, it seemed just possible to find a positive side to those events. Nobody was hurt, and that was, truthfully, a real plus, even as the current president largely failed to find the language of moral outrage or the appropriate words to express national unity in the face of evil-doing and hatred. But there was still more to come.

In the wake of this, I was going to dwell on the deeper meaning of my own accidental brush with potential explosive devices. Back in 1997, I had been reassigned from Washington to return to Japan as a US diplomat. Unexpectedly, the person I was to replace suddenly elected to retire early, opening up a six-month gap in the office. As a result, I was asked if I could go to Tokyo earlier than planned. After discussing it with family, we agreed I would go on ahead while my wife stayed in Washington to finish her teaching contract and our two daughters stayed in school until the end of their school years as well. Naturally, most of our family’s belongings stayed in Washington to avoid family disruption, but my wife agreed to send me a couple of boxes of miscellaneous items by airmail, boxes filled with personal odds and ends that might be nice for me to have over the next half year, in addition to my luggage.

Then, one night, at around 03:00 local time, I was roused from sleep by a phone call. A voice I did not recognise asked me if I was Brooks Spector and, after I said yes, the voice explained he was a postal inspector and his department was now holding a box addressed to me that was vibrating slowly. Asked to identify the sender, he read the name of my wife and asked me the circumstances of my departure. His pregnant question was, “Did you depart on good terms, or….?”

Perhaps my giggles and laughter were not in keeping with the presumed gravity of this moment (as it was in a period of increased watchfulness after that earlier bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993), but then I remembered that one of the two boxes coming my way had a motorised back scratcher packed in it. It was a humorous farewell gift from an old friend. I realised the batteries must still have been inside it, and the jostling of the box in the mail system must have switched it on. I authorised the postal inspectors to open the box, turn off the item, remove the batteries, and reseal the box and send it onward. But the event – even such a humorous one – was a tangible reminder that terrible things really can happen. Via the regular mail system.

A handout photo made available by Broward Sheriff’s Office shows a booking photo of Cesar Altieri Sayoc taken in August 2015 (issued 26 October 2018). Cesar Sayoc was arrested in Plantation, Florida, USA, on 26 October 2018 for his alleged role in connection to the packages containing pipe bombs which were sent in recent days to several prominent figures across the US, sparking a sprawling nationwide investigation. EPA-EFE/Broward Sheriff’s Office / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Now, flash forward to this past week, with bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a former attorney general, a sitting congresswoman (and with another congresswoman as the false return address), prominent funders of Democratic Party candidates, two leading former intelligence officials, and CNN. All of these have been repeatedly, vitriolically, harshly criticised by Donald Trump as, variously, evil and enemies of the people, and several of the intended victims are Jewish (That takes on more salience in just a few paragraphs.) The sender proved to be a stereotypical loner, the bearer of a truly faulty moral compass, an increasingly off-kilter sense of public and private behaviour, and with a growing alignment to the devils of Donald Trump’s darker nature.

This was the mythic Travis Bickle from the film, Taxi Driver, now terrifyingly come to life. And then, lest we all forget, the same kind of person had travelled for many miles to shoot up a popular pizza restaurant in Washington, DC, based on the totally fictitious story popular on conspiracy social media sites that the restaurant was ground zero for a child trafficking ring in which Hillary Clinton was a ringleader. Bizarre.

Fortunately, none of those bombs exploded, although they could have; they were not hoax devices, according to law enforcement officials. Imagine for a moment the consequences that would have ensued had one or more of them actually exploded, killing or maiming postal workers, mail screeners, or even the actual people named on the packages. Where would American political discourse – or the country’s political life – have gone if that had happened?

The president was eventually pushed into decrying the bombs, even though by Sunday he had not yet gotten around to picking up a telephone to call any of the intended victims and offer his assurances of full federal law enforcement efforts. That is disgusting enough.

But, then, at a campaign rally, after some teleprompter wordage about those events, tTrump got right back into the muck, accusing the media of provoking the division in the country, and, crucially, ignoring any possible, any conceivable relationship between the dangerous actions of deranged minds and the president’s own “wink wink, nudge nudge” dog whistles (or blasting vuvuzelas) to a core base that includes – and strokes and patronises – outright racists, white nationalists, American Nazis, garden variety anti-Semites, and just plain random haters.

But, unbelievably, there was worse to come. There was a racially motivated shooter who shot two African-Americans in a shopping mall in Kentucky. And then, on Saturday morning, a classic-style anti-Semite, apparently motivated most recently by his own raving anger about a Jewish NGO that provides support to refugees (and us a government contractor, just by the way), as well as by his growing annoyance with the Trump administration for its supposed control by domestic and international Jewry, after posting a final rant on social media he decided to carry out an armed attack at the Tree of Life (TOL) Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, while worshippers were attending three different services in the capacious building.

Deputies lower the American flag outside the Allegheny County Courthouse a day after a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 28 October 2018. Officials report 11 people were killed by the gunman identified as Robert Bowers who has been charged with hate crimes and other federal charges. EPA-EFE/VINCENT PUGLIESE

The eventual toll was 11 fatalities, with numerous others wounded, including several police who had been summoned to the synagogue by reports of gunfire. The Anti-Defamation League, an NGO that monitors acts of anti-Semitic behaviour, has called it the worst-ever such act on American soil, at a time when acts (ranging from the painting of Nazi slogans on synagogues and grave sites to more significant acts of property damage) have been rising sharply.

The Trump response was, quite properly, to denounce anti-Semitic acts such as this attack. But then he carried on his campaigning for Republican candidates in the upcoming midterm election, and declined to alter plans to travel to Pittsburgh for some national consolation, the way the state’s governor quickly announced his plans to do so. Moreover – and this is where the Trumpian response, once again, quickly became bizarre – he insisted there would have been fewer deaths if institutions like Tree of Life had had guards armed to the teeth to fight off the bad guys, like other houses of worship and school classrooms should have as well, and that it was now high time to bring back the death penalty. (Never mind that four actual police – including two SWAT officers – had been wounded in the firefight that actually had taken place.)

And so here we are. At an awful impasse. The Trump administration and its top dog must change the tone, the manners, and, above all, the warped, perverse world view that sees itself as the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy, starring people like all of the reporters of CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times, George Soros, former head of the US Federal Reserve Bank Janet Yellen, and, naturally, Hillary Clinton.

The Trump administration could stop right now from characterising that bedraggled gaggle of mostly women and children from Honduras and Guatemala attempting to seek refugee status in the US as a Soros-funded invasion force of rapists, murderers, Middle Eastern spies and terrorists. It could be brave and admit that guns in the hands of mentally disturbed individuals is a recipe for still more mass killings. But they won’t. They – and he – are moral cowards.

As a result, the task is for Republican elders in the Senate and House of Representatives to step up and tell the president his tongue and his thoughts must be leashed forthwith, lest the country be torn apart. Back in 1974, three of the GOP’s most respected elders – Senators Barry Goldwater and Howard Baker, and Congressman Robert Dole – did that to a beleaguered Richard Nixon. Pushed to consider the alternatives, he resigned, once it was clear he would not survive an impeachment and conviction. It is now time for people like Senators Lindsay Graham and Mitch McConnell to behave as if the country is more important than party, and tell their president to cease and desist. But they may well have the same courage deficits, sadly.

But there is that midterm election coming up in a week, and with the political world now in such confusion, it may well be that anything is possible. If the Democrats gain either or both houses of Congress, Trump will face a stiff dose of his own distasteful medicine – but even that may not stop the haters from crawling out of their dank, dark holes. DM

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