When 9/11 occurred, I reacted with shock. When Dylan Roof killed 9 people in a Bible study class I wept. When Columbine and Sandy Hook and the Shul in Har Nof and countless other tragic events of hatred happened, I cried. In the last few days following the Pittsburgh massacre people have tried to explain the unexplainable horror of these and many other horrendous incidents and how they are possibly intertwined.
Searching for reasons for tragedies may be helpful. Finding a cure should be mandatory.
There is no question, as the research abundantly indicates, that repeated exposure to negative, hate filled rhetoric causes alterations in brain chemistry leading to the possibility of violent thoughts and even aggressive behaviors. We live in a world where politics are increasingly tribal and intransigent, and we are exposed to wrathful untruths on a constant basis on all media platforms. Some of it comes from foreign sources seeking to undermine democracy but much of the hate is, as statistics show, homegrown. There is a message in all of this and it should be broadcast widely.
Seventeen years ago, shortly after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon several Holocaust survivors, my father included, commented to a few of their children. After the massacre in Pittsburgh one of my friends reminded me what his father said after 9/11. It echoed almost word for word those of my father’s. My Father said “This is how it starts. First, they will go after the people who caused the attacks. Then they will go after people they label outsiders and then they will arouse hatred toward the Jews.” He did not mean to be suggestive, frightening or incendiary. He also never claimed to be a prophet. But he did study history. His passions, his avocations were Talmud, history and science and he rarely made predictions unless he saw them as well grounded. I never went back to him to expand the discussion and he is no longer with us. I wish I had though. I do not have to wonder what he would say about a deranged gunman walking into a shul on shabbat. He would ask for prayers and tell me to learn just a bit harder. He would also suggest that history can and does repeat itself. He would probably refer me to some article about the beginnings of the Holocaust or how the Bolsheviks claimed that the exploitation of the bourgeoisie was orchestrated by Jews, classic anti-Semitic tropes.
I, in turn, might refer him to a tweet from the NRA just three days after the Pittsburgh shootings which also echoed a classic anti-Semitism. The NRA tweeted “Another billionaire is pumping unlimited money into electing anti-gun lawmakers. Notorious anti-gunner George Soros joins anti-gun billionaires Steyer and Bloomberg. There is no end to how much they’ll pay to push their elitist agenda on Americans.”
What does the virulent language of hate and the significant increase in anti-Semitic attacks in the United States in the last two years tell us and what can we do about it?
Psychological science tells us that there are some core techniques that may aid us. One thing is clear if we are divided we are more vulnerable. Pittsburghers that I have spoken with were sure that if there were to be an attack on a Jewish establishment it would take place in Israel, New York or Los Angeles as has occurred in the past, never in their hometown. They did not see the need for security at their facilities. The key takeaway is that we have an obligation to educate and warn one another about threats. None of us are insulated from prejudice and hate and we must stand together.
Our divergent views of political leaders are healthy and welcome in a democracy. But words used to divide us and promulgate bigotry that may be used by some of them cannot be explained away, condoned or excused. We must hold leaders to account when they malign people even if it is not us. Hate speech begets hateful behaviors. Once the vile evil is allowed out it is difficult to contain, and historical trends of bigotry are legitimized.
Extremism on either side is of equal contemptibility. It is foolish to believe that either side can have all the answers. It is even more reckless to imply that those on the left ignore the truth or those on the right are all racists. It is imperative that we seek a middle ground and keep communicating with respect not with inflammatory attacks.
The overriding question is whether it is too late for these changes to calm the political maelstrom that leads to increased anti-Semitism. Only time will tell if the Pittsburgh massacre is the canary in the coal mine moment. Or perhaps that happened 17 years ago.