America’s Fatal Shame

At least 10 people were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting Saturday morning. Must this nation worship only behind bars and guards?

John Altdorfer / Reuters

Even in the age of Donald Trump, murderous anti-Semitism in the United States is a cause without leaders. There is plenty of coded anti-Semitism in the United States: Every Jew knows who you mean when you castigate “globalists.” But outright killing of Jews as Jews—you have to lurk in pretty dark corners to draw inspiration for that.

The hate-targets of the would-be bomber suspect Cesar Sayoc are also hate-targets of the president of the United States, and of the whole prime-time lineup on Fox News. But Jewish worshippers in a synagogue are not vilified in this country by any important voice in the way they are in the United Kingdom or Europe—or in the way the reporters at CNN or the men and women of the FBI are vilified by Trump and his enablers.

In fact, one of the special moral challenges for American Jews in the Trump years is that—for once—we have largely been exempt from vilification by a hate-exploiting demagogue. Jews historically assume that bigots of any kind must sooner or later turn upon us as well. But Trump largely refrains from explicit anti-Semitism, and to a remarkable degree the pro-Trump conservative media refrain as well. In a true “only in America” moment, people who bear Jewish names and participate in Jewish life have been full partners in much of the Trump project.

Whereas Sayoc is a recognizable member of the pro-Trump internet subculture, the Tree of Life murderer will likely prove someone too extreme even for that underworld. But if no important voice in any way encouraged this shooter, there are a great many important voices who ensured that he had easy access to the guns with which he committed the shooting.

Post-Newtown, post–Las Vegas, it remains a supreme priority of American politics to protect access to instruments of death by the potentially violent. The gunman who killed two at a Kentucky supermarket on October 25 reportedly had a long history of mental illness. Orders had been entered against him to prevent him from obtaining firearms. He carried one with him at all times anyway—because in a country where guns are ubiquitous, guns will be everywhere.

And where guns are everywhere, death by guns can strike anywhere.  Synagogues, churches—we have not yet even reached the first anniversary of the mass slaughter in the Sutherland Springs church in Texas—and of course schools. Everywhere.

There’s no politician to blame for the ideas in the synagogue murderer’s head. There are plenty to blame for the weapons in his hands. And at the top of that list is Trump, whose response to the killing was to blame the synagogue for not having armed guards of its own. In his famous letter to the Jewish congregations of Newport, Rhode Island, the nation’s first president pledged to them a country that would fulfill the biblical prophecy: “Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Trump is an unworthy successor to George Washington who feeds off fear, normalizes it, and exploits it. He’s done it again today. This crime is not his fault at all. And yet he nevertheless found a way to use this crime to add to his own accumulating shame.