Published March 15, 2019
The horrific and vile murder of at least 49 people in an attack at two New Zealand mosques — many of whom were Muslim immigrants — has important implications for the United States and for President Trump. Trump must not only vehemently condemn the attack: He must also actively work to protect Muslim Americans attending their weekly prayer services on Friday night and tell the world that an attack on Muslim immigrants is an attack on everything he and our country stand for.
More than 3 million Muslims call the United States home, according to Pew Research Center. Mosques are prominent parts of towns and cities all over our nation. In a country where mass shootings have sadly become a common occurrence, the possibility of a copycat shooting is far from remote. That cannot happen, and we must do everything in our power today to ensure it does not.
The alleged New Zealand murderer invoked President Trump and the United States among his many motives for the attack, making the event even more directly relevant for us. The purported gunman published a 74-page “manifesto” online explaining his motives before the attack. He reportedly praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” (though he added, “As a policy maker and leader? Dear god no”). He furthermore said he hoped his use of guns would spark a debate over the Second Amendment in the United States and the resultant polarization would spark “a civil war in the U.S.”
Trump cannot shrink from this challenge, especially after his pathetic comments after Charlottesville. His language must be clear, direct and unequivocal. He must also make it personal. Remarks cannot be delivered via a paper statement or a news briefing, nor does his Friday morning tweet expressing “sympathy and best wishes” to New Zealand suffice. He must stand in the White House and deliver the remarks himself, and he must make it clear that an attack on Muslims is not only an attack on us but also an attack on him.
That statement would surely strike some readers on the right as extreme and some on the left as ludicrous. Conservative critics may say Trump need not go so far, that the acts and ravings of a madman thousands of miles away have nothing to with him. Liberal critics are likely to say Trump himself is a racist and that a president who called for a ban on Muslim immigration could never credibly deliver such a statement, that he would crack under the contradiction just as he did after Charlottesville.
Those arguments are precisely why Trump needs to do this. The president of the United States has been invoked as an inspiration for religiously motivated mass murder. The country’s values have been questioned, and Trump’s own legacy weighs in the balance. Anything halfhearted would be interpreted around the globe as a tacit endorsement of the ugly, bigoted hatred that allegedly spurred the gunman to kill.
Trump must do more than speak; he must also act. Law enforcement must be immediately mobilized and deployed to eliminate the risk of an unhinged imitator following suit. We have only a few hours before the call to prayer will be issued and millions of Americans will gather to worship their God. They must be able to do so secure in the knowledge that we will protect them.
The president can do even more than this. He should show personal solidarity with Muslim Americans by attending prayer services himself Friday night. The first lady, Melania Trump, should go with him, and senior administration officials should fan out across the Washington area to attend as many different services as they can. The visual message of such a move would be undeniable: “They are us,” as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement.
Trump’s reputation may be reshaped Friday night. Treat this provocation as an insignificant act, and the millions worldwide who see Trump as a white nationalist in a White House will go to rest confirmed in their views. Show decisive, unambiguous, moral leadership, and the world will sit up and take note.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.