Silence is not the right response

In response to the horrific massacre this week in Las Vegas, President Trump, after proclaiming Stephen Paddock’s murderous rampage “an act of pure evil,” stood outside the White House with his wife and the Pences. Together, they bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence…

White House Moment of Silence

Personally, this gesture did nothing for me. If anything, it infuriated me.

It’s not that silence doesn’t have its place. Aaron famously refrained from speaking when Moses tried to comfort him after the sudden death of his two oldest sons. There was no comfort to be had, and no words could possibly help him at that moment. The Book of Psalms teaches that silence, in contemplation of God, is praise.

All true,

But the Talmud also teaches us that silence can be interpreted as acceptance. And an American President cannot be allowed to imply that the appropriate response to this kind of violence is to bow our heads in silence and contemplate how tragic it is. As Bob Dylan wrote more than fifty years ago, “How many deaths will it take ’till he knows that too many people have died?”

How many Newtowns, how many San Bernadinos, how many Columbines, how many Gabby Giffords will it take to realize that what happened this week in Las Vegas was in large measure about the ready availability of guns, and particularly assault rifles, in this country?

In the absence of any evidence pointing to Paddock’s Las Vegas rampage being an act of terrorism either foreign or domestic, I don’t agree with the President’s characterization of it as “an act of pure evil.” It certainly was an almost inexpressibly horrific act of violence, but “pure evil?” I see it more as the act of a deranged man, completely detached from reality and the implications of his actions. We have no idea why he did what he did, but he was clearly mentally ill, without benefit of one hateful ideology or another. Mental illness coupled with the easy availability of guns will too often lead inevitably to occurrences such as this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how anyone can contemplate this terrible loss of life and not draw a straight line from the violence to the availability of the weapons that make it possible.

A serious effort to regulate the purchase of firearms in America should have been front and center in our politics long ago. Chicago and Newark, just to name two examples, are cities where gun violence is an uncontrolled epidemic. Children in New York City die from being caught in gunfire having nothing to do with them. And yet– defenders of the Second Amendment insist that the Constitutionally guaranteed right to bear arms guarantees that the government has no right to enact any form of gun control.

So I can’t help but wonder…

Although hunting game is about the last thing in the world I might have any interest in, I can at least appreciate the fact that, for some folks, it is a time-honored and authentically American expression of “the good life.” But really, would any hunter with even a modicum of honor would ever consider using an assault rifle to bag a deer? Seems like a grotesque mismatch to me, and I suspect almost all hunters would agree. So why the resistance to assault weapons?

The only possible answer to that question is that, from the perspective of Second Amendment advocates, “the right to bear arms” was intended to protect Americans from the potential tyranny of their own government– hence the militias, those heavily armed groups that occasionally show themselves in places like Charlottesville. At the risk of sounding like a Northeastern liberal, I have to wonder what the framers of the Constitution, who lived in a world where muskets were the weapon of choice, would have thought about AR-15s and AK-47s…

As long as there are gun shows that enable gun enthusiasts to bypass even the limited background checks that are now the law of the land, every single member of Congress who opposes meaningful gun control is complicit in the murder of innocent civilians. We can have all the moments of silence in the world, fly our “beautiful flag” at half-mast, have speech writers craft eloquent tributes to those whose lives have been lost, and talk about how love will always conquer hate. It is just one gigantic exercise in political self-pleasuring… it feels good in the moment, but accomplishes nothing- and it kills innocent people.

As the late Pete Seeger wrote, “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn…” It’s already too late for the victims of Las Vegas and all the other places where this kind of violence has struck. Where and when will the next mass shooting take place? Where are the leaders with the courage to stand up to the NRA?

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.
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