By Ollie Gratzinger | Opinions Editor
On the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, shots rang out in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Located in Squirrel Hill, the Tree of Life synagogue was the scene of a horrific anti-Semitic hate crime when suburban Baldwin native Robert Bowers stormed the temple and opened fire during the morning Shabbat service.
By the time the shooting stopped, 11 congregants had lost their lives: Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Bernice Simon, 84; Sylvan Simon, 86; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 87; Irving Younger, 69; David Rosenthal, 54 and Cecil Rosenthal, 59. Cecil was a “community buddy in Duquesne’s Best Buddies chapter,” according to an email sent by President Ken Gormley, and was “a frequent participant in campus programming, athletic events and Best Buddy events.”
While receiving medical care, Bowers reportedly told SWAT personnel that he “wanted all Jews to die,” according to the criminal complaint, leaving no doubt that this crime was a personal attack on the Jewish community.
Words are important. They carry an unprecedented weight and are linked inexorably to the speaker’s worldview. With that being said, I’ve struggled all weekend to find the right words to fill this column, but what words can be spoken by the speechless?
Pittsburgh is my home, and Squirrel Hill was a big part of my growing up. Meeting friends at the library on the corner of Forbes and Murray, shopping at Murray Avenue Kosher, dining in Uncle Sam’s Submarines and attending services at almost every reform temple in the area, my memories of Squirrel Hill are tinged with the warmth of summertime and the smell of blooming flowers. Not gunfire. Not death. Not hate.
It feels like our world has changed so rapidly over the past few years, and sometimes it seems like it barely resembles the world I remember. Maybe that’s part of growing up. Maybe that’s part of getting wiser. Maybe that’s part of leaving behind the safe falsehoods of adolescence and learning to see the world for what it is, whatever that may be. Or maybe it’s part of something bigger, something sick and dangerous rearing its ugly head all throughout the U.S. and the world: A rising tide of right-wing nationalism.
Before someone accuses me of politicizing tragedy, let me say one thing: A man with a twisted political agenda killed 11 innocent people in a place of prayer because they were Jewish. If you’re more angry about this column than you are about that, I invite you to reconsider your priorities.
This act of domestic terrorism happened because of a political movement gaining momentum all around the globe. We need to stand up to it and let every last fascist on Reddit, Gab or 4Chan know that there is no place for neo-Nazism or alt-right politics in our democracy. Now, more than ever, everything we hold dear hangs in the balance.
Even before Saturday’s shooting, anti-Semitism has been on the rise in America. From menacing movements on social media to the destruction of Jewish cemeteries, anti-Semitism has spiked by 86 percent in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The Charlottesville riot last year, for instance, allowed white supremacists to chant the Nazi slogan, “blood and soil” while preaching their vitriol to anyone willing to listen. Back then, the president insisted that there were good people on both sides. This weekend, he stated that, if the synagogue had an armed guard, less damage might’ve been done. The level of insensitivity and ignorance exhibited by the so-called leader of the free world should be enough to make any thinking person ill.
Yes, he condemned the attack on Tree of Life. But that doesn’t change the fact that his rhetoric has enabled bigots since he was elected in 2016. To say that there’s good on both sides validates members of the alt-right. His anti-immigrant sentiment fuels beliefs such as those held by Bowers, who allegedly used social media to condemn the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Trump’s rhetorical warfare against democratic leaders incentivized a madman to mail bombs to their homes and offices. To state that armed guards would’ve protected the victims from tragedy is to blame them for failing to anticipate horror. Words are important. The president needs to choose his more carefully.
Gun control debates aside, we have to address the issue of anti-Semitism at its source. This is a crisis broader and deeper than guns. A fascist’s real weapon is ideological in nature, and ideas are much harder to regulate than assault rifles. It’s time we realize that our enemies are not the poor and destitute migrants in a caravan thousands of miles away, but rather the American far-right nationalists, the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis that live nearby.
The rise of right-wing nationalism is a terrifying reality of modern America, and if we don’t combat it, it could consume us. But I still believe that there’s goodness left in the world. The rallying of support to emerge in the wake of devastation highlights what it ought to mean to be human; to stand in solidarity regardless of the things that make us different. Pittsburgh’s Muslim community has raised thousands of dollars for the victims and their families. Folks from all backgrounds have attended and organized vigils, reached out to support their Jewish friends and neighbors and donated blood in such capacity that blood banks had to turn people away. Now that’s the America I want to believe in. That’s the Pittsburgh I call home.
Mr. Rogers once said to look for the helpers, and in his neighborhood, they’re hard to miss.