We live in dangerous times, and it won’t take much to destroy the accomplishments of generations. This much is clear after the mass shootings last week in El Paso, Texas. Twenty people were killed, and 26 more wounded, by a young white male. It was an act of domestic terrorism by a white supremacist, people were quick to assert.
Not so fast.
Although police are still investigating, the narrative arising from the killing is clear enough. Twenty-one-year-old Patrick Crusius of Allen, Texas, is suspected of driving 10 hours from his home to El Paso, tucked along the border with Mexico. Just minutes before the shootings, he is believed to have posted a manifesto of sorts online to explain his violence.
"I'm probably going to die today," he says, in a post entitled “The Inconvenient Truth.” The screed protests against an Hispanic invasion, and justifies the shooting by saying ““if we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.”
As The New York Times reported: “The El Paso shooting, if the manifesto is linked to the gunman, potentially underscored the global spread of white supremacist ideology in the age of social media and at a time when immigration in America and elsewhere has become a divisive political topic.”
Is Crusius a “white supremacist”? Is defending your way of life a sign of craven “nationalism”? I have my doubts.
I keep thinking of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian writer best known for a short book entitled The Prince, a realpolitik primer on how to rule. But Machiavelli wrote a longer, and lesser known work, entitled The Discourses. It was an extended commentary on Livy’s History of Rome. What could Livy teach Italians of Machiavelli’s time about how to unite a people?
What can Machiavelli teach us?
Machiavelli warned about conflicts driven by mass migration where “an entire people, constrained by famine or war, leave their country with their families for the purpose of seeking a new home in a new country … when an entire people aims to possess itself of a country and to live upon that which gives support to its original inhabitants, it must necessarily destroy them all.”
Our debate about immigration is fueled by mass migration to this country. That migration is a product of climate change, violence, poverty and lack of opportunity elsewhere. Given our history, we should open the borders and let everyone come, the better to build a stronger, more diverse nation, or so the argument goes.
Folks like Crusius aren’t so sure. They’re afraid that we cannot take care of folks already here; welcoming more to our shores could make a difficult situation worse. At what point do we say to the teeming nations of the world, “time out,” we need first to cure what ails us before offering aid to any and all?
Yes, Crusius is a white male. In the emerging narrative of our times, he possesses “white male privilege,” an existential chit that gives him a leg up in terms of life chances. Fairness demands that he recognize the privilege and accept the claims of others who don’t possess the privilege. Distributive justice requires that he yield pride of place to the historically disadvantaged.
Put another way, Crusius has been put on notice: What you have taken for granted is not so. Your identity is a social problem. You must take account of the claims of others; justice requires that you yield pride of place, and, perhaps, even pay reparations to those who have not enjoyed your historic advantages. We’re gonna balance history’s scale right now.
And here’s the kicker: If Crusius raises questions about these new and novel claims of social justice, he is labeled a supremacist. It’s small wonder that in a world in which being a white male has come to be regarded as morally suspect, some white males lash out, even violently.
Identity politics are a cancer that will erode the social and moral ties binding the republic. I don’t owe you a thing on account of my race, or yours. Reparations? That’s a race-based tax that I simply will not pay. Ever.
I doubt that Crusius is a white supremacist. I suspect he is scared, however. The changing political rhetoric of our time is fueled by demographic change – Caucasians will soon become a minority in the United States. As emerging minorities claim their due, a fading majority looses its hold on what it took for granted.
This will, of course, yield fear, resentment and anxiety. Unless we find a way to build bridges by a vision of something broader and more enduring than mere identity, we will divide, fracture and fail. Machiavelli saw that.
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, St. Paul wrote in his letter to churches in Rome. The profound truth of Catholic theology is that we’re all sinners in need of grace. Identity is a form of idolatry, of the pot claiming entitlement because of the potter’s choice of clay.
One can defend oneself without being a supremacist. I don’t know Crusius, but I don’t see white supremacism, I see another scared sinner, defending with violence against what he fears. I doubt his life was simple; telling him what he owes you to simplify yours isn’t justice, it’s a shakedown.
There will be more shootings of the sort that took place in El Paso. If there are enough of them, we might come to call it a civil war. Crusius, like the election of Donald Trump, was a canary in the mineshaft.
Breath deeply the fumes of our identitarian discontent. Then ask yourself, is this the future you want? There has to be a better way.
How do you represent those people?
The question is common enough for criminal defense lawyers. In the past few weeks, I’ve received variants of the question scores of times. You see, I represent Fotis Dulos, a man suspected in the disappearance of his estranged wife, and the mother of his five children, Jennifer Dulos.
As if that weren’t bad enough, I also represent Alex Jones, the owner of Infowars, a man sued for denying, years ago, that that Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings took place.
Why would I choose to represent such folks?
The answer might surprise you: I’d rather represent the scorned than the popular. It’s how I am put together.
It starts with a simple enough proposition. No one is the sum of their worst moments. Put another way, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
That’s a Sunday school answer, however, and I am a haphazard Christian at best. Most Sundays find me in the office, and not in a pew.
The real answer is entirely idiosyncratic.
A decade or so ago a loved one fell ill. She was seriously ill. I was terrified. What would I do if I lost her? What would our children do? What would my clients do if I lost my way? What would employees do if I succumbed to grief?
I went to see a psychiatrist. I needed a shoulder to lean on.
When she recovered and the crisis passed, I signed on for psychoanalysis. For the past decade I’ve spent four mornings a week on the couch, free associating my way through endless hours trying to figure out why I do what I do.
In terms of cases I take, here is the provisional answer.
When I was eight, my father left home one morning. He never returned. I was an only child. We lived in Chicago at the time. My mother took his disappearance hard, very hard. I was sent to live with relatives in Detroit while she regrouped. Months later, when I saw her, I realized I had lost her, too.
In some fundamental sense, I was alone, suddenly, a weeper of solitary tears.
We lived for several years like vagabonds. All of our belongings were lost to the storage company that held them, then seized them, when my mother was forced to declare bankruptcy. One year we lived in a spare bedroom in an aunt’s home. Then we lived in an unfinished attic – it was freezing in the winter, and sweltering in the summer. We rented rooms in a rooming house – I had my own, and it was heaven. Then we started to rent furnished apartments. I had my own room; my mother took the living room.
We moved each school year, my mother always seeking a better school district.
(I saw my father once again, 40 years later, thanks to a random appearance on Good Morning America. It was a difficult reunion, so difficult, in fact, that when he died, I was not told about his death. I learned of it just in time to crash his funeral, much to the surprise of his new wife's family who, apparently, did not know that I existed. Walking into a courtroom, even a hostile courtroom, by contrast, is easy.)
As I was about to enter high school, my mother found a new man, a violent drunk who despised me. His names for me made his contempt for me clear. I was suddenly a stranger in my own home, a feeling I wish on no one. I’d walk the streets to avoid coming home before they were asleep so as to avoid a confrontation. These days, email attackers who berate me stand a distant second to this man: do you think I'll be discomfited by electronic scorn when I've smelled drunken rage at close quarters?
One night, a call came in. Her beaux had beaten a neighborhood drug dealer senseless with a baseball bat. The dealer’s friends vowed vengeance. My mother wanted to call the police. But that wasn’t how business got settled in Detroit.
I was given a rifle to guard the back of the duplex within which we lived. “Shoot anyone who comes here,” I was told. My mother’s lover was out front with a revolver – she stayed in the house and wept with fear.
I prayed that night that the men would come to the front of the house and kill this man who made my life so difficult. It didn’t happened. I was fourteen, or thereabouts, and I would have killed that night. I am a criminal, I suppose.
What saved me was the Big Brother’s program. My big brother had a son my age, and a couple of times a month I was taken away for the weekend. We ate meals seated at a table in a kitchen; I was welcome at that table. We went to baseball games. We watched sports on television. I’d wait on the street for him to come. He always arrived when he said he would.
He was a solid anchor in a sea of anger, frustration and fear.
I lost track of my big brother in my mid-teens, when I’d had enough of being hated in my own home and I left Detroit, graduating early from high school and never really returning home. Such success as I’ve enjoyed as a lawyer surprises no one more than it does me.
My big brother died not long ago. I was beginning trial in a case in which my client was accused of throwing his seven-month baby to his death off a bridge. I asked the judge for permission to attend the funeral. Permission granted.
All at once, things seemed suddenly more clear.
I am the man who once rescued the little boy. I’ve become my big brother. The folks I stand beside are me. In some bizarre twist of fate, I repeat the abandonment cycle, this time being the rescuer I never had. I can work out the rage, fear and sorrow over abandonment in standing between an accused and his accusers: It’s true, I take pride in knowing that the state must get through me to get at my client.
I know, I know: the analogy is not perfect, and is, perhaps, too convenient. Yes, I get money to do my job; and notoriety of a sort suits me. I am vain, a man of unclean lips. But I know there is truth in this explanation.
The world hates Fotis Dulos just now. I was hated once, too. A drunken bully would berate me as I stood my ground, trying to bait me into a fight. I’d stand silent, keeping my cool, plotting vengeance. I thought of killing him, but decided leaving was better. My mother had made her choices; I had choices of my own to make, and a life ahead of me.
So I live that life. I defend hated and scorned people, and, candidly, there is nowhere I’d rather be than by their side. Why? I’m guessing it had something to do with silent tears I wept with no one to hear them. My clients will not be alone. They need the defense a little boy never got.
If I am wrong to give that defense, I nonetheless do not apologize. I don’t even ask for understanding. Here I stand; I can do no other. All you are entitled to is an honest answer to the questions folks ask over and over again: Why?