What makes me angriest about the murder of eleven Jews at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, my hometown, is the temptation it offers towards nihilism.
We’re not even afraid of these kinds of mass killings anymore. They have become the background noise of our society, an intolerable human catastrophe that we now register with grim forbearance and weary, paralyzed grief. And it galls and infuriates me especially that, because we are so insanely inured to them, these eruptions of violence due to the sickening provocations of the American right have become utterly pointless. How can you be an effective terrorist when your terrorism has become so routine that no one is afraid?
People in the sanctuaries in Tree of Life synagogue were certainly afraid in the moment. Terrified. Only once in my life have I ever thought, very briefly, that I might die — in an accident in which no one was shooting, but I have never, before or since, been so afraid. So I can imagine, if only in an abstract, distant way, the hopeless terror of having a man burst into my place of worship and opening fire.
But in every one of these terrible instances, the shooting stops. The shooter kills himself, or police capture him. It is always a him. And people mourn and grieve, and we feel helpless, and we feel motivated, and we feel angry. But we then go back to church, back to synagogue, back to our schools. This weekend is the yahrzeit for my grandfather the ritual Jewish remembrance on the anniversary of his death. I will, as I always do, go to temple on Friday night with my mother, at Rodef Shalom, just a short drive down Wilkins Avenue from Tree of Life. Life will proceed, as if the massacre at Tree of Life never happened.
I am not saying this to blithely wave away the trauma and violence of murder. I am afraid, in fact, that we will wave it away too easily and too quickly. I am afraid that we will retreat into private grief and private rage; that we will accept the story that already being spun: another individual madman, acting alone — insane, deranged, ill. I am afraid that we will accept the politically convenient excuse from the very people who encouraged, who asked for this very political violence against our whole community: that politics has nothing to do with it at all.
But it was an attack on our community, and it was political. Jews cannot stop being Jews, and this makes us an easy target for the people who traffic in hatred of outsiders, of people with different names, different gods, different skin colors, different languages. And we can’t let ourselves be lulled into thinking that we can’t name the people who ceaselessly revive the old libels, that it is some nebulous cultural tendency, some abstract characteristic of an uncivil moment in national history.
We have got to say, frequently and to everyone who will listen and everyone who will try not to: this hatred and this murder is a project of the political right, who deploy xenophobia and antisemitism to incite senseless violence whose unpredictability drives us first to despair and then to learned indifference. And we have to say “fuck them.”
So mostly, I am angry, as I think a lot of us are are. We are angry because the elected leaders of our democracy mewl pathetically about their ability to exist in public without being called to account for their deliberate inaction. Angry because we are being told to be civil, to be respectful, to be quiet, to be calm when people are trying to kill us. When people are killing us.
We are angry because we can see so plainly the way out of the maddening inequities that have driven our society, the richest the world has ever known, further and further into an insane, suicidal acquisitiveness. We are angry because our own friends, relatives, and neighbors say or write or post the most vile things, then look at us and say, “But we didn’t mean you.” We are angry at ourselves for not being angry enough.
Individual anger is inadequate, though. Individual anger is part of the poison that sends men with guns into sanctuaries. We can never succumb to that sickness, because we will lose. We have to transform the rage we feel that this happens again and again into solidarity and collective action, and we have to harness anger’s energy into a capacity to take and exercise political power. That means taking it through democratic means, and that also means exercising it through direct action. Through strikes, civil disobedience, and public shaming.
They are trying to kill us. We can’t debate our way out of it or wait a generation for some court or congress to come along for us. We have to shut down highways and chase them out of restaurants. Because what they are doing to us through both their actions and their inaction is far worse.
I am writing this on a Monday in Pittsburgh. The morning feels unusually quiet, but I already feel the tug back to the ordinary. It’s raining, as it always does in October here. The local papers are still full of coverage of the shooting, but also, the Steelers won yesterday. We beat the Browns. At dinner last night we all talked about whether there would be more or fewer trick-or-treaters in our neighborhoods this year. But right now, a few more people are going to be asking the old question, what is to be done? And we have to force ourselves to come up with some answers to that question, and to act on those answers collectively.
The Mishnah, the written collection of Jewish Oral tradition, instructs us: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. We had better take it to heart before the men with guns and the rising seas complete it for us.