Much ink has been spilled about the Pittsburgh shooter. There are as many explanations for his behavior as there are pundits explaining it. We hear a lot about President Trump’s incitement, his racist talk of invasions and infestations and terrorists. And then there is the decades-long breakdown of Middle America—the plundering by big business, the obsolete education, the unemployment, the despair, the opiod epidemic. And the two together, the cynical blustering incitement and the crushing depression, trigger the scapegoating.
I for one did not know that Western Pennsylvania was the last bastion of Western civilization, but if it is now on the verge of collapse, it must be the immigrants’ fault, or the liberals’, or the gays’, or the Jews’, or Obama’s, or Hillary’s, or Hillary’s e-mails, or somebody’s. And of course there are the guns, because we live in a country where, with the help of the gun industry, the right of a loony toon to wield an AR-15 has overtaken everyone else’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
All true enough, in my estimation. But they don’t pinpoint the root of the problem.
Look carefully at the language. “I’m going in.” What do those words mean? “Going in” to what? The expression smacks of macho bravado, as if he’s “going in” to take out an enemy machine gun emplacement that’s pinning down our troops. Or “going in” to a building where terrorists are killing hostages. He’s John Wayne. Bruce Willis. John Wick. He’s the guy who’s prepared to do what no one else is prepared to do. The real deal. True grit. The right stuff. A real hero. He’s Captain America.
Except Captain America doesn’t shoot sweet 97 year old ladies like Rose Mallinger. May her memory be a blessing.
So we have to ask ourselves, what kind of depraved mind could possibly invent a scenario where this barbarity could be taken seriously as striking a blow for human beings everywhere—or at least white human beings everywhere? What is the source of this delusion?
It’s not the desperate circumstances of the shooter’s life. First of all, his circumstances were not so desperate. High unemployment in the Midwest not withstanding, there are about 6 billion people on our planet that would gladly trade places with him if only they could. And, seen from a different perspective: if there was anyone who could claim some imaginary right of “immorality as compensation for desperation,” it would not be the shooter, but instead the holocaust survivors who went to Tree of Life and could have been his victims. But they don’t murder. They daven. In spite of the true horror they experienced, they don’t spend their lives wallowing in despair. They live like decent human beings instead, and inspire us with their humanity and their compassion.
Perhaps we could say that, rather than the desperation, it was the hate. The raw hate. The hate is obvious enough, but what’s not obvious is the nature of the hate, or the source of its intensity. Sure, there was anti-Semitism. And racism. And Islamophobia. And xenophobia. And on and on. You would run out of words before you ran out of hates. The shooter obviously hates everyone who isn’t a white male.
But to hate to such a murderous and delusional extent? Something deeper must be going on. My suggestion would be that more than anyone else, more than Jews or blacks or Muslims or immigrants or anyone else, the shooter hates…himself. And because this is a hatred from which he could not escape, it warped his mind and his heart with incessant and literally murderous intensity. He hates his ignorance, and his incompetence, and his irrelevance. He hates the fact that he spent his life using his head to crush beer cans on, rather than using it to learn something and better himself and his society. He hates the fact that his response to the weakening of his community was to weaken it further, to retreat from reality rather than to rise to the occasion and shape it.
And above all, he hates his cowardice, his passive and distinctly “unmanly” submission to fate and disillusionment. He was brought up admiring, indeed worshipping, the rugged individualism that built this nation—but then he looked in the mirror and came to hate himself for not measuring up to it.
And that is why he created a fake universe in which he could be some kind of hero. That is why he is pathetic, and Rose Mallinger is dead.
Do not misunderstand. Calling him pathetic excuses nothing. It is not at all an expression of sympathy. If anything, it is an expression of contempt, for him and for the entire ilk of David Dukes’ and Richard Spencers’ and the full rogues’ gallery of alt-right figures like him, who have spent their lives getting picked last for the sports teams, being turned down by the girls at the dance, wasting away in dead end jobs, playing with guns, and only finding solace in being the “shock troops” “going in,” ready to sacrifice everything in a valiant fight to save a white race that doesn’t need saving and, if these losers were truly representative of it, wouldn’t deserve saving either.
That’s why the shooter said, “I’m going in.” The problem was, unfortunately, tragically, that the enemy was not in the synagogue, but rather in himself. And, coward that he is, this was not an enemy he was prepared to face.
And if he won’t face it, how can we? What can we do to protect ourselves from this ugly, pathetic, evil? Well, vigilance, of course. And insisting on truth in public discourse. (If ever there was a time when the damage of insane conspiracy theories was writ large, it was in Pittsburgh).
And for G-d’s sake, take away the guns.
But all of these suggestions, and more like them, are defensive in posture. They don’t dispel the evil, they merely shield against it. To get to the heart of the matter requires, literally, heart. Compassion. Sympathy for the people who are learning, by intent and by circumstances, to hate everything, including and especially, themselves.
I am not at all suggesting some superficial generic forgiveness for the shooter. First of all, it is not our place to forgive. Second, the shooter has shown absolutely no sign of remorse, without which real forgiveness is impossible. But for every shooter, and bomb-maker, and car massacre driver who has already perpetrated his evil there are hundreds of others who will follow in their footsteps if the power of love never comforts and consoles them. Where, exactly, we are supposed to find that compassion, I do not know. Our society has become one where compassion seems to be in short supply. And people like the shooter, almost all with that same profile—“He was a very quiet person. Kept to himself a lot…”—would be very hard to reach under the best of circumstances.
And we are not living in the best of circumstances.
But nevertheless, we must not give up on the possibility of human redemption. G-d forbid. G-d forbid that we should live in a world where the moral corruption of people like this should be inevitable and irredeemable. G-d forbid that we should live in the world described by Yehuda Amichai, the great Israeli poet, where he plays on the memorial prayer “Kel malei rachamim,” “G-d who is full of compassion—if G-d was not full of compassion, compassion would have been in the world…”
To the contrary. G-d, the Psalmist tells us, is the “healer of broken hearts.” That’s what it takes to comfort a broken soul. And we, in this, must be the hands of G-d, for the need of comfort is immediate and desperate. Seeing before us the painful evidence of exactly how broken the souls are out there, it is incumbent on all of us, each and every one, to do what we can to bring more compassion and more comfort into the world. And please G-d, little by little, the warmth of compassion will eventually reach even the most despondent, and through the power of G-d’s love, they will see the image of G-d in themselves, and in us. And the killing will stop.
May it only be so.