Scott Ostrem, a 47-year-old, white man, walked into a Walmart north of Denver on Nov. 1 and opened fire. Eyewitnesses described him as “nonchalantly” shooting shoppers with a handgun, killing three.
Police captured Ostrem alive the next day. They said they had “no possible motive for the shooting other than to say there was nothing to suggest it was related to terrorism.”
The incident meets the FBI definition of a mass killing: Three or more people who died in a public place. But sandwiched between a Halloween day attack that killed eight in Manhattan and the slaughter of 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the Walmart killings have faded into the background.
That’s a mistake. Ostrem’s rampage deserves far more attention because it represents the foremost terrorist threat in America today: White supremacist violence unleashed and encouraged by President Donald J. Trump.
Ostrem killed three Hispanic people, Pam Marques, Victor Vasquez, and Carlos Moreno, all parents. In the apartment complex where Ostrem lived, neighbors described him as “a bizarre, angry man who lived alone in an apartment with a stack of Bibles and virtually no furniture.” He was a “loner who would walk around carrying weapons” like a shotgun or bow and arrows.
The local CBS affiliate reported Ostrem “often expressed dislike for Hispanics to their faces.” A Hispanic employee at the building said, “If he saw a Hispanic person, he would tell them to get out of his way.” One neighbor said Ostrem would say, “’This is America. You shouldn’t be here.”
That sentiment could have come right out of Donald Trump’s mouth.
Is there any doubt how Trump would have reacted if a Muslim carried around weapons, kept a stack of Korans in his apartment, verbally abused Christians, and then killed three people? Trump would have lit up Twitter, calling for “much tougher Extreme Vetting Procedures,” decrying Democrats who let the “terrorist” slip across our borders, and condemning the “truly evil” people coming in because of broken immigration policies.
Compare this to the Manhattan attack. Two hours after it happened, before the name of the perpetrator was released, officials designated it an act of terrorism. That assessment was apparently based on nothing more than the suspect, Sayfullo Saipov, yelling “God is great” in Arabic after he mowed down cyclists and pedestrians with a truck. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Saipov one of “these lone wolves who commit an act of terror,” linking him to ISIS. A day later, Saipov was hit with federal terrorism charges.
What officials said of Saipov — a lone wolf “consumed by hate and a twisted ideology” — applies as much to Scott Ostrem and the other white supremacists who have murdered at least nine people since Trump was elected.
The killers attack the same people Trump demonized during his campaign — Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, immigrants — and they are motivated by Trump’s words and ideology.
In February, U.S. Navy vet Adam Purinton confronted two Indian men in a bar in Kansas, asking if they were in the country legally, and yelled “Get out of my country,”before killing Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding two others. Purinton believed he had shot Iranians, another community scapegoated by Trump.
In May, Sean Urbanski, who liked “memes about Donald Trump, white supremacy, and the alt-right,” stabbed to death Richard Collins III, a black second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The killing echoed a case in March when Army vet James Jackson stabbed to death Timothy Caughman. Jackson murdered the 66-year-old Black man because “The white race is being eroded. … No one cares about you. The Chinese don’t care about you, the Blacks don’t care about you.”
Also in May, Jeremy Christian stabbed to death Ricky John Best, father of four, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a recent college graduate, on a train in Portland, Oregon, after they defended two black women, one wearing a hijab, being threatened by Christian. Weeks earlier, Christian had attended a pro-Trump alt-right rally in Portland where he yelled “Die Muslims.”
Most notorious is the neo-Nazi murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville in August during an orgy of violence by white supremacists. Days later Trump praised the extremists as “very fine people.”
Because Trump hits the mute button following white supremacist violence, news outlets chastise him for turning a blind eye. That misses the real story. A recent FBI-DHS report determined white supremacists were the most dangerous domestic extremists.
Rather than counter right-wing terrorism, Trump is enabling it by reducing scrutiny and cutting funds to help “right-wing extremists move away from radical ideas.” Additionally, he’s engaged in a bait-and-switch to divert attention from his brand of terrorism. His administration has fabricated threats such as “Black Identity Extremists,”and he warns MS-13 gangs have “literally taken over” U.S. towns and cities, a notion completely undermined by FBI data.
Trump also hypes “Islamist terrorism” like the San Bernardino couple who killed 14 people in 2015. He exploited those deaths to call for a Muslim ban despite the fact police “never established the motive.” Trump portrays Saipov and Omar Mateen of the Pulse nightclub slaughter as super-soldiers in a global jihad that can only be stopped by bans on Muslims, refugees, and various immigrants. But each one was simply “an aspiring violent criminal searching for a larger justification for the acts he’s desperate to commit.” They are blood brothers with white mass murderers like Stephen Paddock.
Trump’s complicity with right-wing terrorism goes further. He’s courted white supremacists and propagated their beliefs for years. A former DHS intelligence official says Trump empowers white supremacists because they see “an administration in place today that is supportive of their ideological agenda.”
Those storm clouds were brewing before Trump’s election. In October 2016 the FBI foiled a plot by a Kansas militia called “the Crusaders” to wipe out a Somali-American community in Garden City. They called the immigrants “cockroaches” and planned to perpetrate an Oklahoma City-style massacre, the 1995 bombing by right-wing militiamen that killed 168 people and stands as deadliest incident of domestic terrorism in modern U.S. history.
Sounding like Trump, the Kansas militiamen said the Somalis were “a threat to American society” and hoped a bloodbath would “wake up” a lot more people to “decide they want this country back.”
With a president who uses the Bully Pulpit as a recruiting tool for right-wing terrorism, it’s only a matter of time before some of his followers try a slaughter on this scale again. And no one can see we didn’t see it coming.