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Our view: Unspoken words cause pain, too

Anti-Semitism isn't new, but the internet allows anti-Semites to find each other, rally each other and embolden each other with their hate speech and miserable beliefs. Racism isn't new, either. Yet the internet has created a new meeting place wh...

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Signs, flowers and other mementos at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation, where 11 people died during a shooting rampage in Pittsburgh. (Hilary Swift/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

 

Anti-Semitism isn't new, but the internet allows anti-Semites to find each other, rally each other and embolden each other with their hate speech and miserable beliefs.

Racism isn't new, either. Yet the internet has created a new meeting place where racists can gather with the like-minded and bring their simmering hatred to a boil.

On the internet, words hurt. We see it again and again, whether it's bullying in the schools or neo-Nazis stirring hatred on a national level. And, in the case of President Trump, a lack of words can hurt just as much.

Saturday, Robert Bowers stormed into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people of Jewish faith, gathered in peaceful worship. Before he did it, he apparently had been on an internet site called Gab, which has become a gathering place for neo-Nazis and white nationalists.

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After the tragedy, the president's early reaction was that "this wicked act of mass murder is pure evil." But he later said that if the synagogue "had protection inside, the results would have been far better." He also noted that "fake news" has caused great anger in America. His first response - the one people will remember - wasn't much consolation.

The president can do better. While he doesn't necessarily encourage violence, he also doesn't denounce it - at least not convincingly.

Now, some are calling for more stringent rules on social media platforms in hopes of limiting hate speech that, as we have seen, can result in death. Some platforms are working in that direction; others, such as Gab, obviously are not.

Gab was introduced in 2016 as an alternative to mainstream sites, which are beginning to realize that they must do more to police content. Gab's creator, Andrew Torba, has called political correctness "a cancer on discourse and culture."

As of Wednesday morning, Gab was offline, but in a message on the site's home page, Torba lashed out.

"The online outrage mob and mainstream media spin machine are the minority opinion. People are waking up, so please keep pointing the finger at a social network instead of pointing the finger at the alleged shooter who holds sole responsibility for his actions."

The shooter, without doubt, is responsible. But poisonous anger - stoked by the internet and not thoroughly and convincingly denounced by our chief executive - does not help.

It's difficult for a newspaper to wag a finger in the direction of limiting free speech or watering down the First Amendment, yet we believe sites that specifically cater to hate speech and misinformation should face criticism if not some sort of actual policing. That could take time and legislative effort.

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What wouldn't take time and effort, however, is for President Trump to firmly denounce these actions, urge an end to violence and console the victims as past presidents, Republican and Democrat, have so ably done.

President Trump's daughter and son-in-law are Jewish, and he's been a friend of Israel. Denouncing the Pittsburgh massacre should be easy for him, yet his reaction in the first days was clumsy and offensive.

Whether on the internet or from the president himself, words - spoken and unspoken - matter.

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