Massacres begin with dehumanization

Last Saturday morning, October 27, 2018, eleven people lost their lives, six people were wounded, a community lost its sense of peace, security and contentment, and a world lost its equilibrium. All because Robert Bowers, a man, armed to the teeth and apparently driven by antisemitic views, entered the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh and proceeded to slaughter innocent Jews, who had gathered in ecclesiastic worship.

How can a human being slaughter fellow humans as if they were unworthy of life? What did these seventeen people do to Robert Bowers to enrage him like this? Although the investigation is still ongoing, the fact is that nothing we might do to irritate another justifies wholesale slaughter. The only way a person can perpetrate such a terrible crime is if he or she has dehumanized the victim.

The moment we feel that another is less worthy of life than we are, we can justify taking that person’s life. The terrible aspect of such crimes is that the perpetrator justifies a heinous egregious act that can never be justified. When we know that our actins are immoral and indefensible there is hope that we can stop short of committing them. If we committed them once, there is hope that we can back off and not repeat the offense. But when we convince ourselves that we are righteous, that our cause is just and that our enemies are unworthy, we create a framework from which it is difficult to back down.

Friends, neighbors, and family can implore us to stop, they can preach the error of our ways, but we will persist because we will believe that we know better. We create a prison from which there is no escape and procced to lock our conscience therein.

How does this begin?

We don’t wake up one morning and decide that others are subhuman. We wake up one morning and decide that our interests trump the interests of others. We proceed to made spurious comments, post hateful social media messages, all the while telling ourselves that those who don’t approve are being overly sensitive and are seeking to curb our right to free speech by claiming victimhood.

Someone recently posted a meme on a social media group that poked fun at those who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I responded that this was not appropriate because those who suffer from this disorder do not see it as a laughing matter. I was immediately attacked by another who insisted that we have the right to make comments and post jokes so long as we don’t intend to give offense. If others are hurt by our comments, the burden rests on them to realize that we did not intend to hurt them. In other words, they are being overly sensitive and curbing our right to free speech.

I replied that humor is a weapon and just as we are taught to handle a knife with caution lest we hurt another without intending to, so must we use our humor with great caution lest others are hurt. This reply got me nowhere. I was told that I am obsessively compulsive about my sensitivity and I should lighten up.

I believe firmly that this cavalier treatment of another’s dignity and feelings is the stepping stone toward dehumanization. If we believe that we are right to post hurtful comments, it is not a stretch to progress from there to deliberately hurting and demeaning others. Deciding that we don’t need to filter our words and behavior to shelter another’s feelings, is the first step on the road to dehumanization.  It doesn’t mean that every person who posts inappropriate comments on social media will barge into a synagogue and slaughter innocent worshippers, but it behooves us to take a lesson from what happened. The road that leads to such heinous crimes begins with a lack of sensitivity.

When we can only see one side of an issue and aren’t willing to consider the other side, we are treading along a path of intolerance. It is best to step off that path early because if we continue this journey, there is no telling where it might lead.

My heart goes out to the families of the victims. May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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