We are overwhelmed with deep emotions of anger, frustration and despair over the senseless attack last Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. The memory of the 11 victims of the worst mass murder of Jews in U.S. history haunts us.
The horror in Pittsburgh came the same week when Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent 14 pipe bombs to prominent Democrats around the country, including the Obamas and the Clintons. The first bomb discovered was in the mailbox of philanthropist George Soros, a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. (Soros is also the subject of a number of conspiracy theories, including the one in which President Donald Trump blames him for protests against Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by the charge that he is paymaster for the migrant caravan traveling in Mexico.)
According to investigators, Pittsburgh gunman Robert Bowers was concerned about those migrants in the minutes before he shot his way into Tree of Life. Indeed, standing outside the synagogue, he posted to the Gab.com platform popular with right-wing extremists, blaming the Jewish community for the migrant “invaders” heading to the U.S. southern border.
We do not connect the president to the massacre in Pittsburgh lightly. But there is something very disturbing about the coarsening of political rhetoric — enabled, encouraged, exercised and heralded by this president through his deft use of Twitter and his gift for dramatic hyperbole to enflame the masses at his rallies. Those actions have undoubtedly helped cultivate the warped thinking of the likes of Bowers to believe that it’s necessary to kill Jews in order to stop thousands of immigrants from entering our country.
We do not place the blame for the anti-Semitism that seems to have motivated Bowers at Trump’s feet, nor do we reflexively blame the proliferation of assault-style firearms or a lack of comprehensive security at houses of worship for the bloodshed. All, some or none of those reasons could account for the senseless deaths at Tree of Life. But words have consequences, and mean-spirited and hateful words have bad consequences.
To be sure, the bounds of “acceptable” political speech have been moving to the outer fringes of “polite” speech for quite some time. Trump is not the first president to denigrate opponents, and some on the left are just as prone to anti-Semitic dog whistles as those on the right.
But when the person with the largest bully pulpit in the world repeatedly rails against the press and his political opponents as “enemies of the people,” and campaigns using terminology and images popular with white supremacists, it is no wonder that miscreants like Sayoc and Bowers feel empowered, and succumb to the urge to spew their venom.
This should not be happening. Mass killings diminish our civilization, and rob organized society of essential freedoms. Our leaders are supposed to protect us. If they don’t, or if they feed threats to our safety and well-being, they are simply not worthy of their offices.