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The underside of America’s exceptionalism

Lee A. Daniels

The horrific killing sprees at the Planned Parenthood office in Colorado Springs, Colorado and in San Bernardino, California underscore the fact that there’s a poisonous spirit gouging deep trenches in the surface of American society now. It has many causes and shows itself in numerous ways. But it’s most shocking manifestation — these mass shootings — has a double edge to it.

The first is how “routine” mass shootings have become. Experts debate whether the number of mass shootings per year — defined by congressional researchers and other experts as incidents in which at least four people are shot — have increased in recent years. But we do know that since January, there have been at least 354 such incidents. The first sentence of a New York Times article exploring that fact began with these words: “More than one a day.”

The second “edge” is how politicized the reaction to them has become — as exemplified by the response of Democratic and Republican politicians to the two latest shocking incidents.

Immediately after both attacks, Democratic politicians, led by President Obama, along with expressing sadness and sympathy for the victims and their families, called on Congress to enact gun-control legislation that balances the rights of individuals to own guns with the need to reduce the current, largely indiscriminate access to them.

“We have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” Obama said, “and there’s some steps we could take, not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings, but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently, common-sense gun safety laws, stronger background checks.”

The Republican response, however, was starkly different. When Robert L. Dear, Jr., a white Christian conservative, attacked the Planned Parenthood office on Nov. 27, killing three people, including a police officer, and wounding nine others, Republicans in general and the GOP candidates in particular limited their remarks to muted, generalized expressions of sympathy for the victims.

They said nothing about Dear’s religious background or the phrase police officials said he muttered when captured — “no more baby parts” ­— which unmistakably indicated hostility to Planned Parenthood’s support of women’s right to abortion. And they declared the violent language they use to describe those who help women seeking abortions isn’t responsible for the murderous attacks on Planned Parenthood offices, abortion clinics and abortion clinic staff.

In sharp contrast, the Dec. 2 San Bernardino mass shooting provoked the GOP presidential candidates to full-throated war cries against the President and homegrown “radical Islamic terrorism,” in Donald Trump’s words. Texas Senator Ted Cruz thundered that the San Bernardino attack proved the US needs “a war-time president.” Carly Fiorina immediately declared its perpetrators’ Arabic backgrounds proved it was “a homegrown terrorist attack.”

In other words, the two mass shootings underscored what has long been apparent: that gun-rights absolutists, from the National Rifle Association to the GOP candidates and elected officials, are willing to tolerate mass shootings of Americans — as long as they’re perpetrated by mentally-unstable whites or whites whose views on gun ownership and other political and social issues seem to match their own. For all their talk of sending their “hearts” and “prayers” to the victims’ families, they’re unmoved by the murder of innocents unless they can make political hay from the profile of the killers.

That horrible reality is stark evidence of the underside of society’s cherished notion of “American exceptionalism” — the boast that America is the most freedom-loving, peace-loving, generous and welcoming nation, etc., etc. in human history.

There was always a lot of fluff and outright hypocrisy to that notion, especially when one contrasted it to the “exceptionalism” with which the white majority treated Americans of color and the way it acted when it felt under stress. Indeed, even a cursory scan of American history shows how much American society has always struggled to live up to its ideals.

That struggle is the American experience now.

There’s no way out of our current awful predicament provoked by a political party whose true campaign strategy is rooted in the underside of American exceptionalism — in empty boasts, outright lies and language — except to defeat it at the ballot box.

That’s the only way the exceptionalism Americans like to think is the stuff this country is made of can have a chance to show itself.

Lee A. Daniels’ collection of columns, “Race Forward: Facing America’s Racial Divide in 2014,” is available at www.amazon.com.