It’s been a week since Robert Bowers, age 46, entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA and (allegedly) killed eleven worshippers, and injured six more. A week later we still don’t know much about this man. We know his father killed himself after being charged with attempted rape in 1979. But Bowers the son had no prior criminal record. He was unknown to police. Neighbors said he seemed normal.
But Bowers was not normal. He had irrational, crazy ideas. He left a trail of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rants on social media. His posts referred to Jews as “filthy,” “evil,” and “an infestation.” According to media reports, just an hour before the shooting, he posted “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
The “screw your optics” comments appears to refer to online discussions by White Nationalists since the Charlottesville protest suggesting that they should bide their time and organize politically, because only with political power can “any type of violence-oriented political agenda” ever be possible. See, e.g. Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man writing at +972 Magazine.
For more than two years Donald Trump has railed against immigrants. “They come to murder,” he says, they are “animals,” “the worst people.” He has kept up such hate speech even after the Tree of Life tragedy last week, for example prominently promoting a racist smear political ad this Thursday. The ad ties a caravan of desperate Central American refugees (nowhere near the U.S. border) to a remorseless convicted murderer, and asks “who else will Democrats let in?”
“We are a Republican family,” said a man retired, in his late 60’s, as we walked by canvassing for Dr. Kim Schreier in WA 8th Congressional District this week. He meant his comment as a short cut for “I don’t have to think or talk to you about the issues!” I did not say, but should have: “It’s time for a serious gut check as to what it means to be a ‘Republican family’ in the age of Trump.”
Is it more of the same, this Tree of Life mass shooting, or is this different, we wonder?
Bowers had an active gun license and owned 21 firearms. Officials said he used an AR-15 assault rifle and three .357 Glock handguns in his assault. It unites this shooting with so many others of recent years. Bowers is just another person with crazy ideas, and too many guns …. and Congress remains unmoved as ever. Mother Jones has compiled a list of mass shootings in the U.S. the past 36 years. Here are the 16 most grizzly:
- Las Vegas strip massacre (10/1/17)……………………58 dead, 546 injured
- Orlando Night Club (6/12/16)……………………………49 dead, 53 injured
- Virginia Tech (4/16/7)……………………………………….32 dead, 23 injured
- Luby’s Killeen TX (10/16/91)……………………………..24 dead, 20 injured
- Sandy Hook Elementary (12/14/12)…………………..27 dead, 2 injured
- Texas First Babtist Church (11/5/17)…………………26 dead, 20 injured
- San Ysidro McDonalds, CA (7/18/84)…………………22 dead, 19 injured
- Marjorie Stoneman Douglas HS, FL (2/14/18)…..17 dead, 14 injured
- U.S. Post Office, Edmond OK (8/20/86)………………15 dead, 6 injured
- San Bernardino (12/2/15)…………………………………..14 dead, 21 injured
- Binghampton NY (4/03/09)………………………………..14 dead, 4 injured
- Fort Hood, TX (11/05/09)……………………………………13 dead, 30 injured
- Columbine High School (4/20/99)………………………13 dead, 24 injured
- Aurora Theater Shooting, CO (7/20/12)…………….12 dead, 70 injured
- Washington Navy Yard, D.C. (9/16/13)………………12 dead, 8 injured
- Tree of Life Synagogue, PA (10/27/18)………………11 dead, 6 injured
These shooters all had crazy and irrational ideas. Does it matter if in addition they were mentally ill, depressed, or had some venal motive? The results are equally destructive, horrid, sad, and depressing. Do we need to parse a rationale or motive from these heinous irrational acts?
We are human, so we reach for explanations. We psychoanalyze Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (the Columbine shooters) and reach conclusions like “The Depressive and the Psychopath.” As if that explained anything. Klebold may have been a depressive loser and Harris a psychopath, but ultimately that is not an explanation independent of their act.
If Klebold was a depressive, and Harris a psychopath, Bowers was an anti-Semite. All three were driven by irrational, crazy ideas. Can we weed out crazy ideas? “We shouldn’t try to regulate guns, we should do more to address mental illness,” said an undecided voter on my canvassing list this week. But can we tell when irrational and crazy ideas (always wide-spread in any population) will translate into destructive individual action? The army was criticized for not weeding out Major Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) because we could point to evidence he was mentally disturbed after the fact. Trouble is, it’s easy to trace evidence of crazy and irrational thinking in a shooter after the fact, but it’s not usually possible to predict when irrational and crazy ideas will lead to destructive action.
We can’t solve the problem of mass shootings by eliminating crazy ideas. Anti-Semitism is no exception. But we can do something about guns: we could ban all civilian possession of assault rifles; we could require vigorous mental health screening upon purchase of a gun and periodically upon re-issuance of a license; we could require safety training before issuing a gun license; we could require insurance; we could strictly limit the number of guns someone may own. These are practical measures that could help reduce the incidence of mass shootings, no matter what stripe of hate and crazy ideas a potential shooter may be harboring.
We can, and should, also insist that our politicians not fan the flames of hate. Trump has been fanning the flames of hate against immigrants since he announced his run for the presidency. “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” said Trump atop that elevator in Trump Tower in New York. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” From that speech, through his efforts to ban Muslims from coming to the country, from slashing refugee quotas and dismantling the refugee resettlement program, through the hateful and slanderous campaign advertisement he distributed this week, Trump and his administration have fanned the flames of fear and hate against immigrants.
And as Peter Beinart has noted in The Atlantic, there is a direct line between Trump’s fanning the flames of fear and hate against immigrants and the crazy ideas expressed by Robert Bowers last week. “HIAS likes to bring in people that kill our people … I’m going in,” said Bowers. He had absorbed and was repeating Trump’s false and crazy idea that immigrants are murderers and rapists. Jewish Americans have been on the forefront of the battle for social justice in America, notes Beinart. They were leaders in the Civil Rights movement. They are leaders in assisting refugees. This puts them in the cross-hairs of White Nationalists who want to undo civil rights for Blacks and other minorities, and who want to turn away refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Latin America in order to secure a Christian White Nationalist America.
If Beinart is right, this makes the victims in the Tree of Life Synagogue not victims of an ancient virus called anti-Semitism: it makes them soldiers in the front lines for a just world. This is a role the brothers Rosenthal may not have known they were playing. But the narrative we adopt for this event, of course, is for us. Through our narrative we choose how to honor these victims, and we choose how to think about the threat going forward. And the threat may well increase as demonstrated by seven arson attacks on New York synagogues and schools in the week following the Tree of Life shooting.
Avi Gabbay, the leader of the Labor Party in Israel, encouraged American Jews to move to Israel, “because this is their home.” Gabbay sees no role for Jews to play for effecting a just society in America; if the going gets tough here, they should slink away to Israel, he suggests. Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, raised hackles on a visit last year when she suggested that American Jews don’t know much about the Middle East, and thus should not have much say, because they don’t have their children serve as soldiers–either in the American army or the Israeli army. But if Hotovely was right that American Jews don’t send their children to fight in the armed forces in the Middle East, she missed that many of these kids are fighting for social justice, and for liberal democracy, both in the Middle East and here at home. If the Tree of Life Synagogue was targeted by Bowers because he perceived Jews to be fighting for world justice and liberal democracy, two things anathema to White Nationalists, why not honor and celebrate these eleven victims as heroic soldiers in the fight for liberal democracy? The rest of us should close ranks behind them and join the fight.
This post first appeared on Roland Nikles’s blog today.