Barbara Kay: Trump’s rhetoric didn’t cause this massacre
People pay their respects at a memorial to shooting victims outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Penn., on Oct. 29, 2018.
The Sabbath massacre in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, but it is not the first time Jews in the United States have been targeted for attack while at worship.
In 1960, a 16-year-old boy threw a bomb into a synagogue in Gladsden, Ala., but it didn’t explode. The would-be massacrist then shot and injured two people fleeing the building. Before that, in 1958, a bomb made of 54 dynamite sticks was thrown into the Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Ala., and it, too, failed to explode. If it had, it could have killed hundreds.
Nobody remembers disasters that fail to happen. But these near-misses should remind us that evil walks among us at all times, not just “in the age of Trump,” a phrase one continually hears, and that some twisted minds, yearning for a unitary explanation that accounts for their own failures as well as all the other perceived problems in the world, fasten on The Jews.
They should also remind us that sporadic hate crimes, even horrific massacres, should not be blamed on an authority figure, however obnoxious, unless that leader actually embodies an inherently hateful ideology or political policy.
So yes, Kristallnacht could be blamed squarely on Hitler and the Nazi party, because racial purity and anti-Semitism were integral aspects of that platform, with violence condoned or encouraged. Terrorism in Europe and Israel can be blamed on Islamist groups, because hatred of Jews and Western culture is inherent to radical Islam, and because such groups proudly and publicly take credit for the carnage.
In North America, we can blame neo-Nazi groups and the social media they use for encouraging hatred of Jews, blacks and other minorities. Yet unlike many Islamism-inspired attacks, no organized white supremacist group praised Bowers or implied he acted on their behalf. Bowers was simply an extreme anti-Semite, churning day and night with ugly thoughts and barely contained impulses that finally burst their fragile bounds.
Trump is criticized for a tone that often promotes division among Americans for partisan ends. Fair enough. He’s also slammed for not repudiating these cretins unequivocally. But even if he had, what difference would that have made in this case? Bowers was contemptuous of Trump for his well-known Jewish connections and partiality to Israel. In one post on Gab.com, a site known for hate speech, Bowers wrote, “Trump is surrounded by k****”, “things will stay the course.” If he were inspired by Trump’s perceived indulgence of the alt-right, does it make sense that he would target people Trump identifies with? Would it not be more logical for him to target undocumented Latinos or Muslims, who have legitimate reasons to consider Trump hostile?
If you follow the “logic” that links the synagogue massacre to Trump, the same logic would have Justin Trudeau — widely perceived as hyper-sensitive to Muslim concerns — as the root cause for Alexandre Bissonnette’s rage erupting in the 2017 Quebec mosque massacre.
Are we going there? Some people might. Not me. Because then I would just as logically have to wonder if Obama was somehow to blame for the 2015 Charleston church massacre of nine black worshippers by white supremacist Dylann Roof, or consider the failed 1958 and 1960 synagogue bomb explosions somehow the fault of Dwight Eisenhower.
On Dec 6, 1989, lone wolf Marc Lepine massacred 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. He was not affiliated with any political movement, nor was he inspired by an ideological guru. Nobody blamed prime minister Brian Mulroney for the massacre, or the tense and divided political atmosphere around Meech Lake. Nor should they have. Lepine acted on the urgings of his personal demons.
But violence directed specifically against women was new and shocking. Swollen grief and anger demanded a vessel large enough to hold it all. Lepine was a lone wolf, but also a man. And feminists did place the blame for the massacre on what would soon be called the “toxic masculinity” inherent in all men. Society complied. That was morally wrong, and furthermore a great cultural mistake. The White Ribbon campaign the massacre inspired raised awareness around the issue of intimate partner violence, but the message was almost invariably linked to a demonization of men, which has encouraged mutual resentment and mistrust between the sexes.
All the individuals behind these attempted and successful acts of human slaughter are mysteries in the end. A divisive and volatile environment may further excite their dark passions, it is true. A national leader who is careless in his often divisive rhetoric does nothing to calm the social waters. But that’s a far cry from actually causing a massacre.
And so, when CNN asked Rabbi Jeffrey Myers if Trump would be welcome at the Tree of Life Synagogue, he wisely replied: “The President of the United States is always welcome. I am a citizen, he is my president. He is always welcome.” That was the right, that was the unifying, thing to say.