Words fail to capture adequately the shock and aching sadness at yesterday’s slaughter of 11 and wounding of others Saturday morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. The randomness of the target selected – it could easily have been a synagogue in Newton, MA, Shaker Heights, OH, Highland Park, IL, Atlanta or Houston – intensifies the impact of domestic terrorism.
But we shouldn’t be surprised. In varying degrees, anti-Semitism has always been virtually everywhere, but today, given how divided the American people are and the toxic leadership that plays to those animosities, coddling viewpoints once considered fringe, the hatreds – and not just toward Jews – are front and center.
The Center for American Progress is among the many organizations noting an increase in violent anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-racial minority incidents since Donald Trump took office. Over the last two years, documented hate crimes have doubled, half of them targeting Jews. Anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017 (the increase over 2016 the largest in nearly 40 years) and have continued apace in 2018. A 250 percent increase in white supremacist activity has also been reported.
Remember President Trump’s comments after the violence at the Charlottesville VA Unite the Right rally organized by neo-Nazis and white supremacists: “there are good people on both sides.” White racist extremists , on websites like the Daily Stormer and Gab, celebrate daily the President’s dog whistles as validation of their views. And the President reinforces their sentiments when his initial response to the Pittsburgh shooting was to blame the victim, as in, if the synagogue had had armed guards, it wouldn’t have been so bad.
Obviously, President Trump didn’t pull the trigger. It was Pittsburgh resident Robert Bowers, 46, who was quoted yesterday on the need to “kill all the Jews.” His social media were replete with anti-Semitic rantings and conspiracy theories. In one instance he wrote, “There is no maga as long as there is a kike infestation.”
Bowers showed particular animosity toward HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which has recently been offering assistance to Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States. He also faulted HIAS for helping immigrants and asylum seekers on our border with Mexico. To complete the picture, Bowers expressed the belief that Jews, George Soros included, were behind the caravan and the mailing of unexploded bombs for the purposes of influencing the mid-term elections. This is in line with the tweets of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (the man whom Trump wants to replace Paul Ryan) and his ilk who warn we can’t let Soros and Bloomberg buy the election.
In times like this, a normal President’s most important roles are to keep us safe, heal and bind us together as a nation. To the contrary, our current President has sought only to solidify his base by fear-mongering and fomenting hatred. When he used a short prepared teleprompter script criticizing anti-Semitism, it looked like a hostage tape, and he carefully avoided any connection with the shooter’s targeting the group for its support of immigrants.
Yes, there have been some Democrats who have taken his cue and bought into the language of assaulting their political opponents. (e.g., Maxine Waters). But this is a false equivalency. Trump’s behavior is of a whole other magnitude. His incendiary and hateful language, in his tweets, offhand comments, and Goebbels-aping “big lies” rallies that have normalized violence and green-lighted the most dangerous behaviors. The Synagogue shooting was just days after passionate Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc of Florida was apprehended for mailing pipe bombs to CNN and 13 Trump critics whom the President had excoriated by name.
Going almost unnoticed by the media this week was a Louisville suburb shooting of two African-Americans in a Kroger store. Minutes before the killing, shooter Gregory Bush had tried to get inside the mostly black First Baptist Church, but it was closed. He, too, has a history of mental illness.
And need we remind ourselves how a majority of our politicians, in craven obedience to the NRA, have failed to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of extremists and deranged individuals whose hatred the President’s rhetoric is inflaming, as one Congressman put it, creating sparks to ignite the gasoline of unstable minds.
In the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Bowers used an AR-15 rifle and three handguns. Our anguish and despair have been escalating, as if more were even possible, the intensity growing exponentially since 17 were slain on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Prior to that, there were the 58 deaths in Las Vegas and 49 in Orlando. Four of the eight most lethal shootings in recent U. S. history have been in the last two years. Whether obtained legally or illegally, the instruments of mass murder must be effectively regulated.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family fled fascism in Czechoslovakia and the ravages of World War II, has written that the 20th century was a battle between democracy and fascism, with democracy emerging as the clear winner. But its enduring victory is not inevitable. Trump is not Hitler. But his narcissistic need to be the strongman whatever it takes, his blind admiration of the likes of Vladmir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, his epic lying, his lack of empathy, his endorsement of mano-a-mano violence, his fear mongering, is an American manifestation of fascist authoritarian trends gaining power around the world.
Clearly, the battle between liberal democracy and fascism has been joined again. Sadly, at home there is a growing number of cynical political leaders, some on the ballot this year, who believe they can advance their careers by stoking the rage of white supremacists, racists and anti-Semites. As has been said at different times and in different ways, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men – and women – to remain silent.
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