It has become a horrific American ritual. Every year, citizens across the nation steel themselves for the inevitable death toll. They just pray the AR-15 does not train on their neighborhood. And when it does, if it does, they clean up the mess as quickly as they can and move on. They will not feign ignorance–gun laws are immutable in this country.
But things are slightly different this time around. When Robert Bowers burst into the Tree of Life synagogue, his goal wasn’t just to satisfy some twisted, feverish hankering for death. It was simply because, as he put it, “all these Jews need to die.”
Hate crimes are far from unusual in America, and in a land where we pride ourselves on religious freedom, the statistics are enough to stun any insouciant devotee of a “free” American country. In 2016, the FBI reported a whopping eleven hate crimes in Pittsburgh, two of them related to religion.
Bowers’ heinous crime adds another to the list for 2018. A frequenter and avid user of Gab, a two-year-old social media network notorious for its scant user guidelines, had found a like-minded community of neo-Nazis and white supremacists to feed his already percolating xenophobic leanings. Up until just seconds before he executed his crime that has him now charged with 29 criminal counts, Bowers spewed caustic and intensely, divisive racial slurs and bigoted remarks on his account. His very bio read, “Jews are the children of Satan,” inspiring questions about how speech ought to be monitored on the world wide web.
The synagogue massacre represents one of the deadliest attacks on the Jewish community in decades, claiming the lives of eleven innocents. For New Light Congregation’s already dwindling population, the loss of these zealous “shomerims” will be felt.
Squirrel Hill residents now question whether the synagogue can even be considered a sanctuary anymore.
Among those slaughtered in the massacre was a dentist who offered his services to the uninsured and underinsured, a substitute teacher, a doctor, and a partially deaf man who was killed after wandering accidentally into Bowers’ line of fire. These were not only faithful members of the Jewish community, they were social workers, healers, and helpers.
Since the Roman empire, churches and other houses of worship have offered protection to those fleeing persecution or arrest. But protection against violence is something these “safe havens” struggle with to this day.
Trump, a steadfast supporter of the NRA, has suggested that what could have neutralized the situation was not fewer guns, but in fact, more. Many Republicans are contending that the presence of armed guards outside the synagogue would have deterred Bowers from assaulting its members.
Jewish leaders across America have responded to what they view a preposterous suggestion. J.R. Kern of State College, Pennsylvania wrote to the NY Times, “Mr. President, I don’t want to live in a country where we need guards at synagogues and churches. I don’t want live in a country where I send my grandchildren to schools with guards and guns.”
Some have even gone so far as to blame Trump for inviting these acts of violence. His intense political tribalism, which has consistently ostracized the political left and othered America’s minority populations, obliquely encourages extremists like Bowers to act on their dark impulses.
And when you think about it, it wouldn’t be hard for Trump to address the core issue here. When the Orlando nightclub shooting claimed the lives of forty-nine individuals, Obama told it like it was, an act of terrorism and hate. How hard is it for Trump to do the same?
For now, the New Light Congregation is left to grieve, to mend their lacerated hearts, and close the colossal void in their community. May peace with all in Pittsburgh tonight.
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