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FBI agent adds insult to injury in Texas hostage situation

Special Agent-in-Charge DeSarno’s words have done damage that will take time to repair, for they leave us feeling invisible, irrelevant, and alone
Photo Credit: Gabrielle Birkner, A Muslim attendee of the Shabbat event at the Chabad of Poway shows his support for the Jewish community.

In the midst of a spiritually enriching Shabbat morning service, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three others were taken hostage by a terrorist at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. They were held for 11 hours, as we all held our collective breath and prayed for their safety. Luckily, this horrific incident ended in their safe release while the terrorist died at the hands of the FBI. Unfortunately, my faith in the emotional and ethical safety of Jews also died in the hands of the FBI.

Haaretz reported that FBI Special Agent-in-Charge, Matt DeSarno, stated that the FBI does not believe that the subject was singularly focused on one issue, adding that it was “not specifically related to the Jewish community.”

Excuse me, what?

The terrorist apparently demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist suspected of having ties to Al-Qaeda, from federal prison in Texas. Siddiqui, is serving an 86-year prison sentence after being convicted in 2010 on charges that she sought to shoot US military members while in Afghanistan two years earlier. Yahoo News reported that she has a history of antisemitism, including demanding that jurors in her case be DNA tested and removed “if they have a Zionist or Israeli background.”

The hostage-taker chose a synagogue during Shabbat morning services. He didn’t choose a local gas station, restaurant, mosque, or church. He chose a synagogue, where Jews were inside, praying. To suggest that this heinous crime is not related to the Jewish community inflicts needless and egregious insult upon injury.

On October 27, 2018, news broke that a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in my own city of Pittsburgh. As information trickled in about each additional life lost, the reality of the full magnitude of hate and its aftermath sank in. It was personal. So was Poway. And so is every single time a sacred space of any faith is violated by a vile and evil criminal.

Pittsburgh is a city with soul. What helped us process and eventually begin to heal in the days following the horrific shooting was the unconditional outpouring of love and support. Clergy of all faiths crowded the stage during the first of many services that were held in our city. They offered comforting and sincere words of hope and showed us that we were not alone. The outpouring of messages of love from so many people in my near and far circles kept me going in those initial hours of utter disbelief and immeasurable pain. Most importantly, we didn’t whitewash it. We faced evil together by calling it what it is and vowed that love would triumph over evil.

FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Matt DeSarno was not only mistaken in his take on the situation, but somehow he also managed to make it worse. Thankfully, the standoff ended with the safe return of all hostages. But the damage done by DeSarno’s words will take longer to undo. It left us feeling invisible, irrelevant, and alone.

President Biden unequivocally condemned the targeting of the Jewish community, saying, “Let me be clear to anyone who intends to spread hate – we will stand against antisemitism and against the rise of extremism in this country.”

The ADL thanked law enforcement, and also stated, “This situation is a painful reminder of the fact that synagogues in America continue to be at risk for terrorist attacks. There is no doubt, given what we know so far, that the hostage-taker chose his target carefully. We urge law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate the role antisemitism may have played in motivating the suspect.”

It is hard enough that social media outlets have become a cesspool for promoting antisemitism, racism, lies, and hatred. It is incredibly easy for any troll with a cell phone or access to a keyboard to pontificate and spew hate and garbage. But when words that whitewash and twist reality come from a purportedly respectable government official, they have the potential to cause irreparable harm. We have reached a new low. And that low is dangerous for everyone. Not just Jews.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s remember and reflect on his wise words, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

So let’s call the incident at Congregation Beth Israel what it is: a terrorist attack, aimed at the Jews inside with the intent of terrorizing the entire Jewish community.

And let us stand together, because as MLK also said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

About the Author
Erris is an attorney, wife and mom and a candidate for a Master's Degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology. She is a blogger for The Times of Israel, and her articles have been featured in various publications including Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Good Housekeeping, House Beautiful, Town & Country, Elle Decor, Country Living, Woman's Day, Redbook, Esquire, Yahoo News, Beyond Your Blog, YourTango, The Jewish Chronicle, Algemeiner, SheSavvy, Kveller, Parent Co, The Mighty, Grown and Flown, Mogul, Beliefnet, All4Women, the Journal of Educational Gerontology, Her View From Home, The Good Men Project and Scary Mommy. Please follow the links to her social media accounts.
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