It’s one of those days when an unhappy coincidence between the fiction I’m reading and the real world I’m living in has led to some troubling thoughts.
For the last couple of days I’ve been reading Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, the first in a series of medieval murder mysteries. In this book, the heroine, a female doctor from Salerno who specializes in examining corpses (i.e., a coroner before that was a job description) is called upon to investigate the death of “Little Saint Peter” in Cambridge, England — the latest in a series of mysterious disappearances of young children. This being the 1140’s, the deaths have been blamed on the Jews of Cambridge, who are reputed to have crucified at least one Christian child, possibly more. While the novel is fictional, some of the details of Little Saint Peter’s death are based on the death of William of Norwich in 1144, one of the earliest examples of Jewish blood libel, of which there were many instances in medieval Europe. (The “blood libel” link above goes to the Wikipedia article which gives a good overview; as always with Wikipedia, there are several more specific links available in the reference list at the bottom of the page).
I was interested in the character and the story, and not thinking particularly deeply about the blood libel aspect of the novel (which I knew about from history anyway), until I woke up this morning, finished the book, and went online to find that Swedish people were making fun of Donald Trump on the internet.
Not that Europeans, or anyone for that matter, making fun of Trump is particularly newsworthy. But this latest round of fun was based on something Trump said at a rally in Florida yesterday. Amid the usual round of incoherent ramblings aimed at assuring his supporters the world is a terrifying place and only he can protect them from Islamic terrorists disguised as refugees, he threw in the comment:
“You look at what’s happening. We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this?”
As it turns out, nobody (except Trump supporters at a rally) would believe “this,” because there’s no “this” to believe. No terrorist attack, no act of violence at all, carried out by refugees, terrorists, or anyone else, occurred in Sweden on Friday. There has not been a terrorism-related crime in Sweden since 2010, although it seems the US President (who allegedly gets much of his information from watching TV) may have watched a Fox News piece linking crime in Sweden to the increased refugee population. Maybe. But nothing was “happening” in Sweden the night before Trump made that statement.
It’s telling, of course, that only us enraged liberal snowflakes and the “left-wing media” who Trump recently labelled enemies of the people (and, of course, the Swedes) got up in arms about this. I haven’t seen any Trump supporters calling him out on this, anymore than they were upset when Sean Spicer thrice referenced Atlanta as a site of a terror attack by immigrants, or Kellyanne Conway blamed refugees and immigrants for the non-existent “Bowling Green Massacre” and then claimed that she misspoke. (Here’s a tip: if your job is being a spokesperson for the most powerful man in the world, maybe be a little careful about words like “massacre,” as “massacres” are things people tend to get upset about).
For months, since long before he won the election, Trump has been grooming his supporters to ignore the line between facts and lies — by attacking the mainstream media, changing the definition of the term “fake news,” and making obviously false statements about things that only matter to his swollen ego. A case in point occurred at Thursday’s bizarre press conference, when Trump claimed he had won the biggest electoral college victory since Ronald Reagan. When it was pointed out that wasn’t true, his response was, “I don’t know, I was given that information.” (In fact, Trump’s electoral college victory was the third-lowest since Reagan; only George W. Bush managed to do worse — twice).
Does anyone (other than Trump) care, now that he’s president, how big his electoral college win was? Of course not. The only purpose of blatantly false claims like that is to destablize the entire notion of “facts,” to remind Trump’s base that the only thing that matters is what the President says, and the only source he needs is “something I heard somewhere.” Don’t trust the mainstream media; they’re all fake news. Truth is whatever the leader says it is.
Why does this matter? Any of us can google how many electoral college votes every president has won and confirm for ourselves that the US president made a false statement and didn’t care about it. We can also check and confirm that there was no terrorist attack (or indeed nothing unusual at all) in Sweden on Friday night, no terrorist attack in Atlanta since 1996 (by a white right-winger) and no massacre, ever, in either Bowling Green, Kentucky, or for that matter Bowling Green, Ohio.
It matters because such false claims may be the modern equivalent of the medieval anti-semitic blood libel. It matters because twelfth-century English peasants could be led to believe that their Jewish neighbours were crucifying children, or mixing murdered children’s blood into Passover bread. In the same way modern, educated Westerners, surrounded by more sources of information than the world has ever imagined, can be led to believe that countless crimes are being committed by immigrants and refugees, even though almost no evidence of such crimes exists. And if someone comes forward with the evidence? It’s “fake news.” Or the mainstream media is not reporting all the attacks that are taking place. Or we misspoke, but the underlying idea is still true and shouldn’t be discounted just because we got some pesky little facts wrong.
You can almost imagine Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer as a medieval abbess and bishop at an 1144 press conference, assuring the press that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of these poor kids being murdered by Jews every year. You can’t trust the mainstream press to tell you the truth — just listen to the Church, we’ve got the real story. By the way would you like to pray at the shrine of the little martyred saint while we hang a bunch of Jews?
Nobody is denying that refugees and immigrants sometimes commit crimes, though they generally do so in smaller numbers than native-born citizens do. (Note that I went with a conservative source for that link, just to be fair).
Nobody is denying that Islamic terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are real, horrible and deadly — and though the vast majority of their targets are other Muslims, ISIS in particular has carried out deadly attacks on non-Muslims in Western countries. Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016 have been the most notable such attacks in recent years. There have also, of course, been mass murders carried out by criminals who were Muslim and who appear to have acted alone but expressed support for ISIS (San Bernadino, Berlin market, Nice, etc).
People kill other people. It’s an unfortunate fact of human nature (I would say “sinful human nature” but of course that’s my own religious bias showing through). But there’s a particular kind of crime that the current right-wing populist politicians in the US, in England, in Europe, and yes, even here in Canada, are interested in highlighting and drawing attention to. This is the mass murder carried out by a Muslim, ideally an immigrant or refugee, against white, ideally Christian victims. If there’s a direct or indirect connection between the murderer and a terrorist group, so much the better for the politicians’ purposes. But even if no such link turns up, one can be hinted or suggested by the spin doctors.
The Paris attacks of November 2015 fit the template: so, as I’ve noted above, have several other killings in the last couple of years. What’s extremely fortunate for American citizens but inconvenient for the current US administration, which needs to bolster support for their immigration ban, is that very few attacks that fit that template have occurred on American soil in the years since 9/11.
Everybody agrees that mass killings are bad (of course, so are individual killings, another point I hope we all agree on). But mass killings that don’t fit the template do not get talked about or highlighted by the Trump administration. In fact, there was a terrorist attack, a deadly one, last week — but it didn’t occur in Sweden. It took place in Pakistan, where more than 80 people were killed and over 300 injured (according to most recent estimates) when ISIS carried out a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine. I can’t find any record of Trump or anyone else in the US administration addressing this tragedy at all — because it doesn’t fit the narrative. Yes, “radical Islamic terrorists” are unquestionably to blame — but the victims were Muslims at prayer, and to draw attention to this attack would be to remind people that Muslims are far more often the victims of terrorism than its perpetrators (a point which also underscores why mostly-Muslim refugees are so badly in need of safe homes in other countries. The Trump administration, for obvious reasons, does not want to draw attention the suffering of refugees).
Mass shootings carried out by non-Muslims also don’t fit the narrative. The Quebec mosque attack was briefly of interest to the US administration — Sean Spicer mentioned it early on the day after it happened, when it was still a possibility the perpetrator might have been a man named Muhammed, detained by the police for questioning. When police confirmed that the killer was a white, Quebecois right-winger (and the officially anonymous man possibly named Muhammed was an innocent bystander), the US administration went silent and has had nothing else to say about a mass killing just north of their border.
Nor have they had much to say about the shooter who killed five people in Fort Lauderdale airport shortly before Trump took office. Once the killer was revealed to be a non-Muslim, mentally ill US military veteran, the tragedy remained a tragedy — but a tragedy without a political point to be made.
So if your goal is convince the population that Muslim immigrants and refugees pose a security risk so great that a wealthy nation must close its doors to people in desperate need, but Muslim immigrants and refugees aren’t co-operating by carrying out enough terrorist attacks to fit your narrative — what do you do? You do what medieval Jew-haters did in England — you make up attacks. You claim that lots of things are happening that the media isn’t covering, or you make vague allusions to things that never happened in Sweden, or Atlanta, or Bowling Green, or wherever,
Liberals, the mainstream media, and all of us who are fans of facts, will cry out and rage about these lies, but our protests don’t matter. You’ve already defined and dismissed us as purveyors of “fake news.” Your base support group, already carefully trained to believe that you, the leader, are telling them the truth while the media lies, will not question whether anything really happened.
After all, most Trump supporters will reason if confronted with their leader’s lies, if it didn’t happen in Sweden Friday night, it probably happened somewhere, sometime. We all “know” Muslim terrorists who got into our country disguised as refugees are carrying out crimes all over the place, just as medieval Christians in Europe “knew” Jews did terrible things to Christian children. And that “knowing,” unsupported by facts or evidence, becomes the basis for scapegoating and targeting of vulnerable groups.
Medieval peasants had an excuse. Most of them were illiterate; their lives were filled with backbreaking labour, and even if they had time to investigate the truth behind the blood libel, information was hard to come by. We, living in the information age, have no such excuse.
Perhaps as Canadians we think we can sit back and shake our heads at all the Trump craziness in the US and believe it has nothing to do with us. Don’t fool yourself. In Toronto this week, about a dozen people rallied outside a mosque holding anti-Islamic signs. Who cares about 12 people? Maybe nobody. But a much larger group — over a thousand, including among their speakers some Conservative party leadership candidates — gathered inside a “Christian” college (yes, as a practicing Christian I have to put the term in quotes there) protesting the importance of their right to free speech (again, I chose to link to an article from a right-wing source supportive of the rally). Shouts of “Ban Islam!” were heard in the crowd, and a Muslim journalist who attended the rally wearing her hijab claims that at least one speaker explicitly defined “freedom of speech” as the “right to hate.”
People who want a right to hate, a right to stir up fear, need frightening stories to whip up support. And not much has changed since 1144.If enough frightening stories don’t exist, there are always people ready to make them up.