What Trenton can do in the wake of Pittsburgh

How do you prevent terror?

How do you stop someone full of rage and hate from shooting up a synagogue on Shabbat morning?

And, beyond the generic you, what can we, the specific individual Jews in our New Jersey synagogues and voting booths, do to prevent terror in our country?

One solution is to make the means of mass murder difficult to acquire.

When Akash Dalal came back to New Jersey, after having been radicalized while volunteering for the Ron Paul campaign in New Hampshire in 2012, he was determined to fight the Jews. Fortunately, the Walmart in his North Jersey neighborhood offered spray paint and the ingredients for a Molotov cocktail — but no weapons of war. He and his accomplice, Anthony Graziano, terrorized our community — but no blood was shed. And in large measure, we have our New Jersey state government and representatives to thank because here, unlike in Pennsylvania, guns are not easy for casual buyers to get, and that in Dalal’s attacks on five synagogues, not one drop of blood was spilled.

But while getting weapons of war out of the hands of anti-Semites across the country remains a worthy goal, it’s not going to happen as long as the National Rifle Association-approved Republican party is in power in Washington. On Saturday, after tweeting out condolences on Saturday and ordering flags be lowered to half mast, the president of the United States tweeted out an approving link to a video of the president of the NRA. Hours after the massacre, he took time to reassure heavily-armed Americans that their private arsenals are safe on his watch.

Another way to tackle domestic terrorism is to make radical ideas less viral, less easy to pick up. At the most basic level there’s the very hard question of how to make Americans more immune to conspiracy theory and hate. That’s something that groups like the Anti-Defamation League have been working on for decades — by some measures, with some success.

And then there’s the newer question of how to make evil ideas less contagious, less capable of propagating over the internet and the airwaves. That can be done — though it would require some soul-searching from the corporations, large and small, which try to squeeze every drop from the media platforms they run by prioritizing emotional engagement over other values. Like truth.

It has been documented that sites like Google’s YouTube consistently recommend conspiratorial videos to its viewers. Some are relatively benign, like those pronouncing the earth to be flat. Others, attacking gays and promoting anti-Semitic conspiracies, are outright dangerous.

Google and its fellow so-called-tech-but-actually-media companies have been long on action and short of results in solving this problem. While some suspect that at its management levels Twitter is deeply sympathetic to the alt-right, Google and Facebook are both headed by nice-enough, if not communally engaged, Jews. It’s time to start holding Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg personally responsible for the hate their companies spread. Jewish organizations such as the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center have talked about working together with Google and the other platforms to deal with extremism and have avoided publicly shaming them. We hope they will reassess the admittedly difficult trade-offs of cooperation versus condemnation. The time for public shaming may have arrived.

Public shame also should apply to the old-media world of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News networks. Hours after the shooting in Pittsburgh, Fox Business News repeated a segment where a guest claimed the migrant caravan in southern Mexico was being funded and directed by the “Soros-occupied State Department.” That was an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory too far for even Fox, which said the guest would not be allowed back. But the network repeatedly has spread the xenophobic conspiracy theories that motivated the Pittsburgh anti-Semite to take action on Shabbat morning. It’s time for the ADL to look at the sort of anti-Semitic and anti-Semitic-adjacent conspiracy theories that Rupert Murdoch peddles, and reexamine whether he truly deserved the “International Leadership Award” it granted him in 2010.

But the easiest change to make, and the one that we citizens of New Jersey can implement moving forward, is to start arresting potential terrorists for the smaller crimes they commit — crimes to which our authorities regularly turn a blind eye.

I refer here to online harassment, which should not be left just to Twitter and Facebook and Google to take down, but should be treated by police as the criminal threats they are.

If Cesar Sayoc lived in New Jersey and called an acquaintance to say, “We will see you for sure. Hug your loved ones close every time you leave home,” he could have been prosecuted for terroristic threats. But because he made such threats online, the victim felt she had no recourse. Would her local police investigate? Would the FBI if it crossed state lines? Would they subpoena Twitter for Sayoc’s identity if the account was pseudonymous? Don’t be ridiculous. Twitter wouldn’t even respond to the victim’s demand that Sayoc be reprimanded for the attack, which violated its ostensible, if erratically enforced, terms of service.

Yet had the police investigated the public threats made by Cesar Sayoc, they might have stopped him before he began mailing pipe bombs to more than a dozen of the president’s political opponents.

But why have we come to accept that online abuse must be tolerated? It is not 1995, when being online is just a hobby. Many of us work online, socialize online, meet the loves of our lives online. Why should this realm allow harassment? Why should someone be allowed to put a threatening swastika in our inbox, any more than he would be allowed to spray paint it on our front door?

Asking the police to police terroristic threats online sounds like an impossible job, but really it’s not. The government could stop a lot of rape threats — standard fare for female journalists on Twitter — just by starting to prosecute a few. By levying a price on harassment and verbal assault, there will be less of it.

And by the same token, having to watch their words will give haters a chance to calm down. It’s not a coincidence that the Pittsburgh murderer marinated in the hate of Gab, an online platform he went to after the most prominent Nazis and haters were booted from Twitter and Facebook and Reddit. There he could be reinforced in his conviction that we Jews are the root of all evil, and worry only about the “optics” of his self-righteous, murderous crusade, not its ethics. (Gab, which bills itself as the online home of free speech but spews anti-Semitism on its Twitter account, was cut off by its payment and web hosting providers within hours of the massacre. It will not be missed.)

Banning the threats also will stop the one-upmanship among the furious haters. If I threaten and you threaten, Alice and Bob will feel entitled to start sending threats too. But after a certain point, threats start to seem weak. The logic of extremism, of escalating rhetoric, of self-radicalism is to take action. That’s what we want to stop.

And that’s what we know our political leaders in Trenton — if not in the White House — want to stop. So as our state politicians reflect on the horror in Pittsburgh, we’d like to ask our legislators to form a task force with the attorney general’s office to explore the question of online threats. How common are online threats? (Make sure to ask outspoken Jewish women what they experience on Twitter.) What sort of threats are illegal now? What could be banned by legislation? And at least as importantly, how can local or state police agencies respond to reports of online threats?

There is no question that the problem of how to police online threat is difficult. But it’s one we believe our representatives in Trenton are capable of addressing. They have the power to start making online spaces safe — and in so doing, to make the physical world of synagogues and potential shooters a little safer as well.

About the Author
Larry Yudelson is associate editor of the Jewish Standard.