Tragedy at Tree of Life

At 10:00 am on Saturday, October 27, 2018, a gunman opened fire during a shabbat service at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After several people barricaded inside the building and called the authorities, the shooter fired at police officers upon their arrival after he was detained in 2 confrontations. 11 people are now dead while 6 others were injured, including 4 police officers. Identified as 46-year-old Robert Bowers who carried an assault rifle and 3 semi-automatic handguns, he is now in custody and could be charged with a hate crime as soon as possible. Pittsburgh’s top FBI official said, “this is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” So far, the authorities haven’t yet confirmed any information on the perpetrator’s motive. Since initial eyewitness accounts can turn out to be wrong as the investigation unfolds. Though KDKA has reported that eyewitnesses heard the shooter shout, “All Jews must die” before firing during the morning shabbat service. Still, the shooting may have been the deadliest attack on Jewish people on American soil.

According to preliminary reports, Robert Bowers was an avowed anti-Semite with a number of posts on the far-right social networking site Gab. There, he blamed Jews for among other things, mass migration and climate change. Posts that appeared authored by Bowers include one written about an hour before the shooting stating, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

The Tree of Life shooting comes amid a steady increase in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes since the 2016 campaign and Donald Trump’s inauguration. And it represents a further intensification of the resurgence of toxic and at times, violent Anti-Semitism during this time. According to the FBI, in 2016, hate crimes had increased 5% since 2015, and 10% since 2014. And out of the 1,273 hate crimes for which FBI found religious hatred as a motivation which is 20% of the total, half were against Jews. In the last year for which complete data was available, the Anti-Defamation League found there have been 1,986 reported incidents in the United States that year, including acts of vandalism and physical violence. That figure was a 57% increase from 2016, which itself has seen a 35% uptick from 2015. The 2016-17 surge was the highest increase on-record since the ADL began reporting on them in 1979. As the 2016 presidential campaign reached fever pitch, over 800 journalists received a staggering 19,000 anti-Semitic messages on Twitter. During events like the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville, Virginia, right-wing extremists openly recited Nazi slogans and carried Nazi paraphernalia.

Incendiary rhetoric has remained intense throughout 2018. Verbal attacks against liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros whose political activities have become subject to far-right conspiracy theories, have reached fever pitch. In fact, just this month Donald Trump publicly blamed Soros for funding the activist opposition to now-Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination who’s been accused of multiple sexual assault allegations. More recently, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Campbell’s Soup executive vice president Kelly Johnson blamed Soros for financially supporting the Honduran migrant caravan making its way to the US border, accusing him of being in control of migrants and refugees. Soros was among the recipients of a series of mailed pipe bombs sent to prominent left-wing media outlets and politicians, including the Clintons and the Obamas.

Now I don’t know much about George Soros except he’s a rich old Jewish liberal with lots of money. However, tune into Fox News, and you’ll find plenty of right-wing conspiracy theorists claim that he’s the devil incarnate or the head of the Illuminati or New World Order. Yet, despite that I know full well he can’t be as nearly as terrible as conservative nutjobs make him out to be, rhetoric against Soros reflects a wider trend in anti-Semitic discourse: a conspiracy theory of imagined “globalists” secretly pulling the puppet-strings of the capitalist world order that’s been a populist rhetorical mainstay since at least the European not-so-Enlightenment in the 18th century. According to the Washington Post, Soros’ “name has become a synonym for a well-worn anti-Semitic canard: the idea that Jews are malevolent fomenters of social dissent, agitators slyly funding and masterminding protest, seeking to undermine a white, Christian social order.” Should the Tree of Life’s shooter’s anti-Semitic motivations be confirmed, it would be the culmination of a week of extraordinary right-wing violence.

Tree of Life’s neighborhood of Squirrel Hill is usually considered Pittsburgh’s de facto Jewish community center. While the Tree of Life synagogue represents a powerful symbol of Jewish life. And the recent shooting reflects another disturbing trend such as the degree to which places of worship have been targets for acts of possible domestic terrorism. From synagogues to Christian churches and Sikh temples, these places have increasingly become targets for extremist violence within the last decade. Many of these have been explicitly white supremacist or right-wing in nature, targeting perceived liberals, ethnic minorities, or women. In each case, these attacks have been designed to maximize emotional effect. Since they’re community hubs designed for children, adults, and the elderly. By targeting a house of worship, the attacker commits a powerful symbolic transgression of profaning a sacred and communal space. Attacking a place of worship isn’t just an attack on worshippers but attack on the community itself. Examples include:

2008: Jim David Adkisson opened fire at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee during a community theater production of Annie. He killed 2 and wounded 7 others. Citing Unitarian progressive policies, Adkisson later told police he did so because he believed the Democrats were “ruining” the United States and that all liberals should be killed. He pled guilty and is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

2012: An avowed white supremacists and Army veteran Wade Michael Page attack a gurdwaras or Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. He killed 6 people and wounded 4 more before killing himself. A longtime member of the white power music scene, Page had been on federal investigators’ radar for years before committing this deadly act.

2015: White supremacist Dylann Roof murdered 9 members of the congregation along with the senior pastor at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof had written frequently and publicly about his desire to kill non-whites as he wrote in his prison journal, “I would like to make it crystal clear, I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.” Since his 2017 conviction, Roof is currently on death row.

2017: Devin Patrick Kelley opened fire at First Baptist Church at Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 in the deadliest church shooting in American history. Unlike the other perpetrators, Kelley didn’t have clearly defined political views or a specific agenda. But he did have a history of domestic violence which included fracturing his infant stepson’s skull in 2012. While the shooting precipitated by conflict with his mother-in-law who attended First Baptist. Kelley was killed during the attack.

Anyway, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue is another indication that we must acknowledge that homegrown, right-wing, domestic terrorism is huge problem in the United States. While the 2008 election of Barack Obama as well as 2007 and 2008 economic collapses have created fertile ground for hateful, right-wing extremism. Despite the outrage of the conservative news crowd over the prophetic 2009 Department of Homeland Security report, we’ve had extremists occupy federal land in Oregon, pipe bombs mailed to Democratic Party leaders, and commit mass shootings targeting minority groups. Sure Fox News will coddle their old white conservative viewers by assuring that they’re okay and that everything is fine with white conservative America as long as certain outgroups don’t get their way. Despite that the Republican Party has sold their souls to Donald Trump. While Trump continues to pander to right-wing extremists and white supremacists as well as inspire and incite violence at his rallies and tweets. And yet, when it comes to properly labeling domestic terrorism as terrorism, the right-wing conspiracy theory mad cable news network is hardly outside the mainstream. Since all 24-hour news are reluctant rattle the status quo cages too much. Since a cable news network needs you to keep watching and will make sure to keep you glued to your TV by not suggesting that the US is rife with right-wing extremist terror. Despite the fact it totally is. Why? For one, they don’t want to alienate conservative viewers who might meet such notions with an all-consuming outrage. At the same time, they don’t want to stir liberal viewers in to activism that goes far beyond watching TV. And in our current American landscape, TV news is king. There are certainly good-faith arguments against label this kind of violence terrorism which mostly have to do with waiting for the FBI to issue that label, or the fact that terrorism definitions usually involve some organized, radicalized sect than lone wolf operators inspired by YouTube, Fox News, or Trump.

However, homegrown, right-wing domestic terrorism isn’t going away any time soon. Donald Trump keeps using incendiary rhetoric encouraging violence against vulnerable people. Though he’d strongly condemn the Pittsburgh attack and anti-Semitism, Trump has failed to do so at other key points in his presidency, particularly the racist violence in Charlottesville last year. Besides, for week, Trump has been stocking fears about the migrant caravan, because his appeal to his supporters is based on fear of immigrants and racial minorities. And because he doesn’t take responsibility for anything, Trump blames the media for fueling political divisions and hate in America and for unfairly casting him as a contributor to the current situation. Despite that Trump has made extremist right-wing views more acceptable in the Republican Party. As long as Republicans keep backing Trump up and refuse to acknowledge the clear and present danger of right-wing extremism within the US, domestic terror incidents will only increase and intensify, especially since they won’t support gun control.

Which brings me to another point. If we want to prevent mass shootings and acts of terror in the United States, then we need to enact strict gun restrictions. Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf has enacted a measure to keep firearms out of the hands of known domestic abusers. After all, mass shooters usually had a history of domestic abuse so it’s a step in the right direction. But state and local gun restrictions can only go so far. After all, while Chicago may have strict gun laws, its rate of gun violence is high. Mostly because many of the guns used to commit crimes are coming from outside its borders. So federal action is sorely needed. For if we don’t enact sensible gun laws to keep firearms out of criminals’ hands, we will see more mass shootings in the future.

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