As a jolt of horror rippled out from its epicenter in Pittsburgh this last Saturday, the immediate and persistent narrative surrounding the murders at the Tree of Life Synagogue has been that they were an individual’s demented expression of a resurgent anti-Semitism in America, enabled by undiscriminating social media and our recklessly divisive President Trump.
Reaction to the Tree of Life massacre as a religious hate crime is necessary and appropriate. FBI data reveal that over half of the anti-religious hate crimes committed in 2017 were directed against Jews, and the Anti-Defamation league reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in that year. This particular form of evil, with its ancient roots and its echos from the Holocaust, is obscene in a way that little else in our illicit culture can compare with, and we are right to focus condemnation on it to the exclusion of all other issues.
All others but one.
If the Pittsburgh killings had happened in a secular venue like a shopping mall or a sports arena, we’d be talking about only one thing: gun control. And without diminishing the overriding importance of confronting anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, we should be screaming about it, again, now.
Robert Bowers came to the Tree of Life Synagogue armed to the teeth with three handguns and an AR-15 assault rifle, the same military-style, rapid-fire weapon used to such tragically murderous effect in Parkland, and in Las Vegas, and in Sandy Hook, and in Aurora, and in San Bernadino, and in Santa Monica, and in Orlando, to name more than enough.
Bromides about religious tolerance and bouquets on street corners are no substitute for political action to confront America’s ongoing, self-destructive romance with firearms. Anti-Semitism is evil, but absolutism about guns and gun rights is worse: it is literally anti-life.
Shall we say it again? Every time this happens, you want to think: maybe this time. Maybe this will be the tipping point, the moment when the rural hunter and the sport marksman and the open carry advocate and the urban liberal who never touched a gun all have the very same thought: enough is enough. We need to do the obvious to prevent another dozen peaceful worshipers, another dozen children and their teachers, another crowd of innocent concert-goers or movie fans, from being gunned down by another sick male with an assault weapon.
But then you think of Sandy Hook, and of Parkland, and of Vegas, and if those weren’t enough to bring America to its senses on this topic, where could that tipping point possibly be? Piousness about anti-Semitism too easily becomes a cover for inaction. And the TV crews withdraw back to their studios, and Trump spews more nonsense about how the synagogue should have had an armed guard, and our elected representatives mouth platitudes about unity and tolerance, and nothing changes.
The fact is that there is no legitimate reason for a civilian to own an AR-15, and that gun control legislation prohibiting same can be carefully drafted to withstand Constitutional challenge. Or, to dare a heresy, the Second Amendment can itself be amended. Who can doubt that if you dragged the Founding Fathers, every last bewigged one of them, out of the past and introduced them to an NRA lobbyist, much less made them read last Sunday’s headlines, they’d be utterly aghast at what we’ve allowed to happen in the name of their little Constitutional footnote about arms and militias?
No, not all mass shootings can be prevented by stricter gun control. But even a marginal reduction in the frequency or lethality of mass shootings means an incalculable number of lives saved and maimings prevented. Not all, but a significant number. It’s at the infinitesimal human margin where the success of gun control should be measured, that one grandmother who would be walking today if the bigot in the synagogue had only a handgun, not in the broad swath of faceless statistics. To do nothing because stricter limits on gun ownership won’t prevent even the majority of gun deaths is to allow the perfect to drive out the good.
We must continue to believe it will happen, someday. Some day the tipping point will be reached, the sea change will occur. It could happen suddenly, without even the need for legislation. It could start with women, who tend to see less sense in guns of any kind or purpose and who bear the children being killed with them, and it could start not on the floor of some statehouse, much less in Washington, but in private.
Women could turn to their families and say, enough. They could cease to tolerate men who teach their sons how to operate an AR-15 just in case their county one day wants to secede from the union, or because they like to put on the trappings of bravery and competence as a substitute for the real thing. They might no longer find it amusing that their husband or lover or brother or child wants to keep guns in the house, and they could laugh in the face of anyone who tells them that it’s for their protection. We all could refuse to countenance a brand of masculinity whose emblems include machines of mass death.
The body politic is a slow learner, but one day our disgust with this self-inflicted carnage and our outrage at the slaughter of innocents will become too much to bear, and shame us into action. Probably not this time, because this time the killer was an avowed anti-Semite and it’s his motive rather than his means that we most abhor. But every madman has his motive. What we must deprive him of is means as lethal as what some claim to be his Constitutional right.