On Saturday the nation was stunned and saddened by a massacre that the Anti-Defamation League is calling the largest attack on the Jewish community in United States history. Eleven people died, and six others were injured after a gunman invaded the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on the community worshiping within.
Without question, an attack like this is nearly impossible to comprehend. No matter how desensitized many of us are to violence, the idea of innocent worshipers being killed in their most humble and vulnerable state is jarring to the soul.
So, what do we do?
Before anything else, we must take time to mourn. Against the backdrop of 24-hour cable news, nonstop social media, and cutthroat electoral politics, we are often encouraged to react rather than to feel. Instead of considering the humanity of those killed in the tragedy, we immediately jump to a posture of criticism and blame.
Of course, some degree of urgency is necessary, as the very same media engine that covers this tragedy will move on to the next story if we wait too long to respond. Still, we must never become so reactionary that human lives become little more than talking points or bargaining chips.
We must also be consistent in using the language of terrorism to describe these attacks. Too often, the violence perpetrated by white American males gets minimized, reduced to pure bigotry or the result of mental illness. Was this a hate crime? Absolutely. Will the public and media speculate about the assailant’s possible mental illness? Very likely. But neither of those points negates the reality that this was also a brutal act of domestic terrorism.
Over the past few years, our nation has entered a climate in which anti-Semitism is normalized and even encouraged.
If we define terrorism as the use of violence to advance an ideological or political aim, there is no doubt that what happened in Pittsburgh was a textbook example. The unapologetic use of the term “terrorism” forces us to look at the systems and discourses that animate the disturbing violence that occurred at the synagogue.
Over the past few years, our nation has entered a climate in which anti-Semitism is normalized in mainstream society. To be sure, this is not a uniquely American trend. All around the globe, particularly in Europe, we are witnessing heightened levels of anti-Jewish sentiment and action. In the United States, the last two years have produced a startling level of anti-Semitism in the public sphere.
Donald Trump’s presidency ― itself realized through a naked appeal to xenophobia and racism ― has emboldened white supremacists not only to operate from the margins but also to articulate their positions in full public view. Such visibility and political power reinforce their age-old rhetoric of anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
Although the Trump administration has gone to great lengths to appeal to the Jewish community through its unrelenting support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this doesn’t negate the fact that Trump’s political machine often traffics in anti-Semitism.
Consider, for example, the 2016 campaign tweet in which Trump referred to Hillary Clinton as “corrupt,” placing the smear inside a Star of David. More often, as Jonathan Chait notes, Trump “would invoke anti-Semitic themes without any explicit reference to Jews or Judaism.” Examples include his failure to mention Jews or anti-Semitism on Holocaust Remembrance Day and his references to Janet Yellen, George Soros and Lloyd Blankfein as stewards of a global power structure that strips economic liberty from the working class.
Through this language, Trump reinforces well-trod anti-Semitic narratives about Jewish cabals, global conspiracies and financial impropriety. Regardless of his intentions (i.e., whether or not he is an actual anti-Semite), he and his political cronies contribute to a dangerous political climate.
The only solution is to place a spotlight on the people, rhetoric and policies that enable these horrific acts to happen.
And the current political climate is marked not merely by ugly discourse. Over the past few years, we have seen poisonous words translate into dangerous deeds. In 2017 a gang of white nationalists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “The Jews will not replace us” and spouting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Violence surrounding their hate-filled rally left one woman dead and dozens of other people injured.
This year, bomb threats have been made to synagogues in Cleveland and Raleigh, North Carolina. Given these realities, it is not surprising that the Anti-Defamation League reports that anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Trump, along with many religious leaders, has suggested that we respond to the tragedy by adding armed security to synagogues. Of course, religious communities have the legal and moral right to do what they must in order to practice their faith in safety.
However, we must consider the message we send by militarizing our synagogues, churches, mosques and schools. Such measures do not ensure that violence won’t occur. Also, by militarizing places of worship, we run the risk of creating fear and fracturing community. If this is the outcome, we will have only rewarded individuals like the synagogue terrorist.
Sadly, given the state of our society, there is no reason to believe that attacks like the one in Pittsburgh won’t happen again. The only solution is to place a spotlight on the people, rhetoric and policies that enable these horrific acts to happen. From there, we must organize and resist on every front.
This work, however, cannot (and should not) be done by Jewish and other marginalized people alone. It is the responsibility of every faith, every race and every nation to struggle to ensure that tragedies like this never happen again.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles professor of media, cities and solutions at Temple University, a CNN political commentator and a former host of HuffPost Live.