The Worst of Our Country—And the Best

The Pittsburgh gunman embodied the cruelty that has sometimes stained the United States—but the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which he reviled, has long represented America at its most compassionate.

Associated Press

Every society contains its monsters: people damaged or disturbed enough, or misdirected enough, to inflict cruelty on others. A central purpose of society—its families, its schools, its civic and faith organizations, its official and unofficial political leadership—is precisely to encourage the good, and buffer and limit the bad, in what is always the wide range of human possibility.

Thus the harshest condemnation of leaders and organizations is for those who do the reverse: revving up and cheering on the worst in human instincts, which often come out as abuse of the weak and the other.

Of the weak: adults against children, rich against poor, men against women, the able-bodied against the infirm, the powerful against the powerless.

Of the other: In American history, the main and cruelest axes have been white against black, and native inhabitants under pressure of colonizers, but there are many more. In Western history, notoriously, it has often been gentile against Jew. In Rwanda, in Cambodia, in Armenia, in Indonesia and Malaysia when ethnic Chinese were massacred there, in western China where non-Chinese minorities are under stress—in these and too many other charnel houses, history reserves its harshest verdicts for those who could have made things better, and instead did nothing, or made things worse.

And now we have what appears to be the bloodiest act of anti-Semitic hate-violence in American history. My point at the moment is not to assess what factors or circumstances made this possible or egged the killer on. I will say that previous presidents have found it their duty to speak to the nation as a whole at times of cruelty or tragedy. In recent times this ranges from Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster, to Bill Clinton after the Oklahoma City mass killing, to George W. Bush in his speech to Congress after the 9/11 attacks, to Barack Obama after the Charleston church shooting.

Donald Trump has never once, in his life, spoken in that vein—as bearer of the whole nation’s grief, as champion of its faith and resolve—so there is no reason to expect that he could possibly do so now. America has almost always had someone able to play that role before. If presidents didn’t naturally possess that register in their discourse, they learned the bearing and language that was expected of them. Harry Truman did so, after he unexpectedly became the leader of the post–World War II world. George W. Bush did, in his early remarks after 9/11. Even Lyndon B. Johnson, who fit no model of a natural orator, recognized what the country needed from him after history-changing assassinations: of the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby, and of Martin Luther King Jr. Like his predecessors, he recognized what was expected of him, and he tried his best.

Donald Trump cannot and will not do any of this, and the absence of such a voice in national leadership is palpable. It is as if George Wallace had been president when King was killed—or Theodore Bilbo, or Strom Thurmond. Even those figures, though, would have probably had a clearer awareness of what a president was supposed to do.

The worst of humanity is cruelty to the weak, and the other. The best is compassion for just those groups. This theme runs through all of the world’s faiths — the Torah and the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran,  their Asian counterparts, and many others all emphasize the obligation of kindness to the stranger. In practice, America has fallen grossly short of that ideal. But in concept, an openhearted inclusiveness is the idea of America: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

What is a group that exemplifies these ideals? The best of religious traditions, the best of American aspirations, the best of human possibility? One excellent example is HIAS. This is a group that started out, when known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, as a relief-and-resettlement agency for Jewish refugees from Europe in the late 1800s, and has become a tribune for refugees, the persecuted, and the desperate from around the world. Its motto and mission statement now reads:

        Welcome the stranger

        Protect the refugee.

Its site says:

We understand better than anyone that hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia must be expressly prohibited in domestic and international law and that the right of persecuted people to seek and enjoy refugee status must be maintained. And because the right to refuge is a universal human right, HIAS is now dedicated to providing welcome, safety, and freedom to refugees of all faiths and ethnicities from all over the world.

Starting in the 2000s, HIAS expanded our resettlement work to include assistance to non-Jewish refugees, meaning we became involved in the aftermath of conflicts from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia, Haiti, Hungary, Iran, Morocco, Poland, Romania, Tunisia, Vietnam, and the successor states to the former Soviet Union. We began to work in countries where refugees fled to identify those in immediate danger to bring them to safety. We realized that there were many refugees who would not be resettled and that it was important for us to help.

(I have also personally seen the impressive work in refugee-resettlement and other social causes done across the country by Catholic Charities and Lutheran Services, which, like HIAS, extend the values of their faith in a universal way.)

Why mention HIAS right now? Because its Jewish background (and centrality in the family history of many Jews in America) and its current work in trying to deal with this era’s tired, poor, and desperate were apparently part of the motive that led Saturday’s murderer to gun down people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

The gunman represented the monsters who will always be with us. Anyone who emboldened, angered, or egged him on represents the worst in social leadership. HIAS has represented the best—in Jewish values, in American values, in human values.