Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
In what should be a shocking bit of news even in a country where antisemitism, violence and wild conspiracy theories are becoming all-too common, a man was arrested for allegedly threatening to kill all the Jews in the Michigan government, the FBI said. The news, which was an important one for some outlets, including CNN, seemed to be downplayed by other major media organizations.
The case, which was publicized by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who said the FBI confirmed she was one of the targets, contains a toxic brew of many of the ingredients poisoning American society: conspiracy theories, poorly moderated social media platforms and a country awash in weapons.
The result, as we have already seen, is not only a surge in antisemitic incidents and crimes – in keeping with a historic pattern of Jews becoming the central targets of all manner of phony fabrications – but also a red flag with a warning beyond one community. That American Jews now feel unsafe in a country where they thought that could not happen is sign of a society beginning to lose its moorings.
Still, if the suspect has shown us the recipe for this toxic concoction, he has also revealed its antidote: pushing back against and removing as much as possible those same ingredients from our society.
According to the FBI affidavit, a Twitter account was traced back to man called Jack Eugene Carpenter III. In February, Carpenter used the account in Texas, writing, “I’m headed back to Michigan now threatening to carry out the punishment of death to anyone who is Jewish in the Michigan govt…” He was charged with making threatening interstate communications.
Under Twitter’s crumbling safeguards, the account is, incredibly, still up at the time of this writing. It shows a trail of anger, threats and wild accusations against Jews.
Some people will be quick to dismiss the posts as the rants of a mentally ill individual – that blend of anger homing in on a specific target, magnified and supercharged on social media, does find fertile soil in disturbed minds. But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous, especially considering the wider pattern of antisemitic rhetoric.
Conspiracy theories are not just strange rantings on the Internet. They get people killed.
Antisemitism, which has proliferated online, has real-world consequences. The Anti-Defamation League’s most recent tally of antisemitic attacks in 2021 listed 2,717 incidents, a 34% increase from the previous year, and the highest number since it started tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.
Numerous incidents targeting Jews have been documented in recent months. Just a few weeks ago, on two different occasions, Jewish men in Los Angeles were shot coming out of synagogue by a suspect who has been charged with federal hate crimes. The previous month, someone lobbed a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in New Jersey. The month before that, a Jewish man was attacked in New York’s Central Park by a man who shouted “Kanye 2024” and antisemitic insults, police said.
Looking at Nessel’s comments on Twitter, I was struck by the call to take the threats seriously. After confirming she was one of the targets, she added, “It is my sincere hope that the federal authorities take this offense just as seriously as my Hate Crimes & Domestic Terrorism Units takes plots to murder elected officials.”
Why would she make that plea?
Some Jews believe their concerns don’t always receive the attention they deserve.
Surveys show that most Jews in America feel antisemitism has become worse, with many saying they’ve been personally targeted online and in person. While a majority of those who say they were the target of online antisemitism say they did not report the incident, about 40% of those who did report it say they never received a response.
Too many elected officials and media personalities allow conspiracy theories to go unchallenged, with some openly promoting them.
Former President Donald Trump, for one, hosted one of the country’s most notorious antisemites at his Mar-a-Lago home in November. “The normalization of antisemitism is here,” declared Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the ADL, in response.
Trump claimed he didn’t know who Nick Fuentes was, and was only expecting Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West. But Ye, too, had already entered the pantheon of celebrity antisemites, with a flurry of antisemitic social media posts which spawned a wave of disturbing incidents, from vandalism to targeted harassment against Jews, according to the ADL.
Meanwhile, Twitter, under Elon Musk’s ownership, welcomed back a notorious neo-Nazi who had previously been banned.
The explosion of antisemitic rhetoric and actions are evidence of the damage inflicted by conspiracy theories that spread on social media, attributing Jews to all sorts of nefarious powers and objectives. And in the Michigan case, the suspect was found in possession of a number of weapons, which underscores just how dangerous this growing trend is. Given how often we’ve seen other groups targeted as scapegoats, the spread of hate-filled rhetoric has wider implications.
This presents a serious challenge to the nation. Countering the threat will require people across society to refute these unfounded ideas, help safeguard the people who are targeted and call out those who promote their unhinged notions.
That’s why it was disappointing when the agenda for a recent House Democratic Caucus retreat included talks about defending Asian Americans and the LGBTQ community against hate crimes and other attacks, but somehow forgot about the minority that comprises by far the largest percentage of religion-based hate crimes, even when the statistics excluded some of the cities with the greatest numbers of Jews.
That a man was arrested after claiming he wanted to kill all the Jews in Michigan’s government should startle even a jaded country. That it doesn’t only highlights the depths of the problem.