Perhaps we should start here: We don’t yet know what we don’t know. Twelve people have been shot, 11 are dead at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh. Six are injured. Four law enforcement officers were injured before the gunman was apprehended. Pittsburgh’s public safety director, Wendell Hissrich, has called the crime scene “one of the worst I have ever seen.” We know very little about this third violent hate crime in a week, but one thing we do know is that the alleged perpetrator, Robert Bowers, ran into the sanctuary in the middle of Shabbat morning services Saturday screaming, “All Jews must die.” A baby-naming was in progress. We know that Bowers was armed with a lawfully purchased AR-15 rifle and handguns. We know from his recent social media postings that he seems to have been angered by the congregation’s concern for and support of refugees.
Perhaps we can add this: Some of us have children, Jewish children, who have been dragged to synagogue on Shabbat mornings, grumbling and bored, just as we were dragged there as children and just as children of every faith are dragged to their houses of worship—to sing and to read holy texts and to pray for peace, as we do each week. We have let our children hide in the stairwells and read books in the balconies and play unsupervised in the courtyards because these spaces were “home” as much as home was. And tonight we will have to tell our children that we cannot keep them safe in their holy places, the places in which they believe that God lives. We have to tell them that the same kind of people who wanted to burn down a synagogue in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year may enter any sacred building at any time with weapons of war, and mow down people as they are praying, for coming together to pray. We have to tell them that in these past two years as we have pledged and promised to keep them safe in their schools and their streets and their houses of worship, that we were lying; we cannot keep them safe, we can only pray that they are lucky. I suppose it is ironic that in this country we can offer nothing beyond hopes and prayers to those who were already praying in the first place.
I can also add that I do know that fighting about whether the election of this president is the cause of what the Anti-Defamation League has called “the deadliest attack on the Jewish Community in the history of the United States” or merely the correlate is pointless. Just as it is pointless to wonder what mysterious unknowable circumstances have led to the massive uptick in hate crimes against Jews since 2016. Just as it is either too easy or too hard to show whether provably false claims about George Soros–financed caravans of Middle Eastern terrorists to the United States have any connection to the killer’s obsession with George Soros and caravans and terrorists. No, we are long past the capacity to debate causation. Because that would require a shared understanding of what is true and the People of the False Flag have ensured that the truth is always the very opposite of the truth.
Perhaps the one thing we can agree upon after today is that we need to ditch that oft-brandished Maya Angelou quote, the one that holds that “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” We keep repeating it because for some reason it makes us feel better, but the deployment of the quote going forward should be: “When someone shows you who they want their followers to be, believe them.” It’s a better fit for an age in which reality is impossible to pin down and everything is a posture or a pose rather than a statement for which the issuer could be held accountable. It is a better fit for an age when allegedly thoughtful sober men claim this president was just being “playful” when he celebrated assaulting journalists or claim that he’s just using rhetoric when he says that he is indeed a nationalist, with all that word implies.
We have been told over and over that we are not to take this president literally or seriously or jokingly or truthfully, even though every day he shows his supporters who he is, and they not only believe in him, they quite literally believe him. For too long we have been trapped in a cycle of figuring out how to talk about a president who is neither truthful nor presidential, who cheerfully labels Democrats as “evil” and gleefully leads chants about locking up the very people who were the recipients of bombs at their homes. How does one even begin to explain to one’s children what it means that the president denounces violence and division as he foments both, on an hourly basis? Perhaps we can look to Florida for a tip. Last week the state’s gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum said that because neo-Nazis and white supremacists were supporting and campaigning for and contributing to his opponent Ron DeSantis, perhaps it was time to stop talking about causation entirely. “I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” he said. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
The formulation is useful because it reframes a pointless debate about what leaders’ dog whistles really mean into a debate about what their followers end up believing. If what is said no longer matters, we can perhaps still evaluate what is heard. In the current ontological meltdown, there is no point in debating what leaders actually mean—they are affirmatively telling us that they lie constantly—but what we can and should focus on is what kind of people they ask their followers to be. Do they ask their adherents and admirers to see the best in others? Do they ask them to find common ground?
In the last week we have encountered two actual killers and one aspiring killer who believed their president when he said that caravans of murderous foreigners are approaching, and who believed that what their president wants is to have those caravans halted by force. They believed their president when he said that the media is hurting America and they believe their president wants to stop the media from doing that journalism by physical force. In the last week, we have seen that when the president makes or amplifies false claims about George Soros and globalists and refugees, people want to act on those claims. It doesn’t matter whether the president is being truthful or arch or ironic or funny or even if he admits moments later that he was just lying for sport. It does matter that millions of Americans believe this president wants them to rise up if the election is stolen by way of “vote fraud,” and that this president wants them to physically assault journalists who report bad things about him. That is what they hear every day, and that is what we need to worry about.
Perhaps instead of wasting another day on the pointless cycle of whether people who tweet racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority statements actually cause anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-minority attacks or just stoke what was there to begin with, we should content ourselves with accepting that this is actually beside the point. The point is that people who hate Jews and immigrants and minorities believe that when they commit violence against these people, they are behaving as the followers their president wants them to be. Do all or most of the president’s fans believe this? Certainly not. But we have seen far too many of them performing on the words the president puts out there. And it doesn’t matter who is “responsible” because he accepts no responsibility no matter what. It does matter what we do next.
Who cares that the president suggested Saturday that the members of the Tree of Life synagogue should have paid armed guards, as armed policemen gave their lives to protect them? We have to stop debating how to interpret the last pointless things that come out of his mouth and realize how they are already directly affecting the people with whom we share this country.
We have to because we also have to show our children our real faces tonight—the faces of pain and yes, terror, the face of trauma that in America people can be mowed down for their faith and their deeds, and that we are at the point when the lawfully purchased gun will not even be a coda to the conversation about massacres in synagogues unless we force it to be. Saturday night, Jewish families perform a ceremony ushering out the Sabbath called Havdalah. Havdalah literally means separation or division—not between people but between the sacred and the profane, between darkness and light, between holy and every day.
Our job this weekend will have two components—we will not only have to do this within our lives, but for the country. We will try to show our children that there are stark differences between love and hate, between hopelessness and hope, and between truth and fabrications. We will also have to show our children what kind of people we want them to be, because as it turns out, when you show people who you want them to be, they believe you. That is the nature of human beings. It is excruciating, but we can perhaps honor those who fell in their own house of prayer this week by remembering the division between light and dark, between hope and hopelessness, and by showing our children that we need them to choose to stand in the light.