Declaring that “white supremacy is a poison” coursing through America, Biden flew to this grief-stricken city in western New York not just to mourn the 10 people killed in Saturday’s shooting rampage but to confront “ideology rooted in fear and racism” and accuse conservative political and media figures of exploiting it.
“What happened here is simple and straightforward: Terrorism. Terrorism. Domestic terrorism,” Biden told a bereaved crowd gathered in a community centre. “Violence inflicted in the service of hate and the vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group, a hate that through the media and politics, the internet, has radicalised angry, alienated, lost and isolated individuals into falsely believing that they will be replaced.”
This so-called replacement theory, the notion that an elite cabal of liberals is plotting to substitute immigrants or other people of colour for white Americans, has become an increasingly common talking point on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and among some Republican leaders. While Biden did not specify names, he asserted that certain politicians and pundits were promoting the conspiracy theory and stoking racism out of a cynical desire to score political points and make money.
“I and all of you reject the lie,” Biden said. “I call on all Americans to reject the lie, and I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain and for profit.
“We can do this if we resolve to do it,” he added, “if we take on the haters and those who don’t even care. It’s just about profit and politics.”
The president’s visit came as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released a report showing a flood of new guns in the United States, with the annual number of firearms manufactured nearly tripling from 3.9 million in 2000 to 11.3 million in 2020. But Biden acknowledged that he had little chance of enacting meaningful new curbs on weapons.
His use of the term “domestic terrorism,” however, represented a stark contrast to former President Donald Trump, whose White House was accused by homeland security analysts of discouraging officials from even saying the words. Likewise, Biden’s condemnation of white supremacy was the kind of unequivocal repudiation that Trump often was reluctant to issue while his administration was said to suppress intelligence warnings about the extremist threat.
But he did not go as far as some on the left wanted him to, stopping short of condemning specific purveyors of replacement theory and other hateful provocations.
Asked later by reporters if certain Republicans or Carlson deserved blame, Biden said, “I believe anybody who echoes the replacement is to blame — not for this particular crime — but it, there’s no purpose. No purpose except profit and, or political benefit. And it’s wrong.”
Carlson said on his show Monday night that the focus on him demonstrated “the ruthlessness and dishonesty of our political leadership” who wanted to use a tragedy to justify muzzling critics of the establishment.
Within minutes of the shooting, he said, “professional Democrats had begun a coordinated campaign to blame those murders on their political opponents. ‘They did it,’ they said immediately. ‘Payton Gendron was the heir to Donald Trump,’ they told us. ‘Trumpism committed mass murder in Buffalo.’ And for that reason, it followed logically, we must suspend the First Amendment.”
Carlson invited one of his critics, Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, to debate him on air after the senator directly called him out. But Schumer, who travelled with Biden on Tuesday, declined. “Amplifying racist lies and propaganda is simply not debatable,” he wrote on Twitter.
In traveling to Buffalo three days after the massacre, Biden was confronting the sort of violent white extremism displayed in 2017, when neo-Nazis and right-wing militias marched into Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump declared that there were “very fine people” on both sides. Biden has often said that episode drove him to run for president.
But the careful line Biden drew underscored the challenge for a president who came to office preaching unity in figuring out how to take on those preaching hate. Whenever he has spoken more assertively about the politics of division, such as on the anniversary of the attack on the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021, he has been accused of violating his own promise to bring the country together, leaving him in something of a political box, trapped by his desire to be a unifier while feeling compelled to take on forces rending America apart.
“Look, the American experiment in democracy is in a danger like it hasn’t been in my lifetime,” he said Tuesday. “It’s in danger this hour. Hate and fear are being given too much oxygen by those who pretend to love America, but who don’t understand America.”
Biden spoke about each of the 10 shooting victims who died by name, at one point pausing to compose himself when describing a father slain while picking up a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son. “In America, evil will not win,” he said. “I promise you. Hate will not prevail and white supremacy will not have the last word.”
But some residents of Buffalo found the words unsatisfying. “I could care less about what Biden said. I want to see action,” said Toni Arrington, 27, a hairstylist who stood outside the community centre where the president spoke. “I want to see our community actually get help. I want to see people actually be protected. We work, we pay taxes, we pay for our protection, and we’re not getting it.”
The bloodshed once again renewed the national debate over gun control, a prime example of Washington’s paralysed politics, but the president made no specific policy announcements beyond voicing continued support for removing military-style firearms from the streets.
As a senator, Biden helped pass an assault weapon ban in the 1990s, but it expired after 10 years. As vice president, he helped develop a package of gun initiatives after the massacre of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
The Obama administration issued nearly two dozen modest executive actions but failed to pass legislation. Biden’s own administration has been no more successful in passing gun control legislation in Congress, although he has taken some steps to address the issue, starting with a crackdown on the proliferation of so-called ghost guns, or firearms assembled from kits.
But the gun rights lobby’s hold on the Republican Party is unshaken, and action on proposals such as universal background checks and a new assault weapons ban remain stalled in part because of the narrow partisan divide in the Senate.
Speaking with reporters before boarding Air Force One back to Washington on Tuesday, Biden said that there was little more he could do through executive action and that he had to “convince the Congress” to take up stronger gun laws, which he acknowledged would be “very difficult.”
“Part of what the country has to do is look in the mirror and face the reality,” he said. “We have a problem with domestic terror. It’s real.”
The United States has at times struggled to directly acknowledge the threat of domestic extremism, let alone develop an effective response. The Trump administration slashed grants to nonprofits and law enforcement agencies that focused on domestic terrorism, cutting funding from $20 million to less than $3 million before much of it was restored in 2020.
“You have to know who your enemy is and what the threat is,” said Elizabeth Neumann, the assistant homeland security secretary for counterterrorism and threat prevention during the Trump administration. “Trump was never willing to acknowledge that. Biden has.”
Even with the president’s readiness to describe the threat, she said the federal government has not made enough progress in working with authorities to prevent violent extremism.
In June, the Biden administration unveiled a national strategy to combat violent extremism, calling for additional intelligence analysts, improved collaboration with social media companies to take down violent videos and expanded digital literacy programs to train the public to identify hateful content and resist recruitment by extremists.
The FBI issued three times as many domestic terrorism assessments for local authorities in 2021 as it did the previous year, according to a senior official. But the official acknowledged the difficulty of policing extremist language while abiding by the First Amendment.
Janet Napolitano, a former secretary of homeland security who serves on Biden’s intelligence advisory board, said it was clear that the United States had not made enough progress preventing extremist attacks since Charlottesville.
“Treat it almost like a disease instead of crime so we can better diagnose ahead of time,” Napolitano said. “I think the bully pulpit is the president’s strongest role.”
Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League, a civil rights organisation, said uniting the country required directly calling out those who amplify theories influencing domestic extremism.
“Some people say when you do this you’re promoting division,” Morial said. But such claims amounted to a “diversion,” he added.
“You unite people around purpose,” he said. “You don’t unite people for the sake of being united.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company