This last Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, saw an unprecedented act of anti-Semitic carnage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robert Bowers, 46, an unbalanced individual who lived about a twenty-minute drive from the area, broke into the Tree of Life synagogue, where congregants were attending a brith — the circumcision ceremony in which a newborn baby boy is welcomed into the Jewish people and given his name, usually on his eighth day of life. When the smoke cleared, eleven people were dead and six were wounded, two of whom are in critical condition. Bowers himself was shot several times by responding police authorities, and is currently in an area hospital.
According to the New York Times, neighbors characterized Bowers as a loner who was often observed outside his apartment smoking cigarettes, but seldom if ever spoke to anybody. He was not so reticent on social media.
On a controversial site called Gab.com, which claims to be dedicated to “freedom of speech” and is frequented by members of the white nationalist lunatic fringe, Bowers posted numerous anti-Semitic diatribes, claiming that “the Jews” were responsible for “illegal invaders” crossing the southern border of America, and were “slaughtering [his] people.” Contrary to the fondest hopes of the lunatic Left, Bowers was no fan of Donald Trump, faulting him for being too close to “the Jews” and calling him a “globalist, not a nationalist.”
The Times article went on to make much of the fact that 21 guns are registered in Bowers’ name, including the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle that he used for the mass killing. It is, however, hard to see at first glance how anyone could have prevented this, or foreseen what was coming. Bowers has no previous police record, beyond a traffic violation in 2015, and no obvious record of mental instability, beyond his irrational rants on Gab.com. Though law enforcement authorities can’t monitor every chat site all the time, it would appear that this one bears closer watching by them.
Members of the synagogue and a former rabbi who served there are understandably distraught. And may perhaps be forgiven for some wild statements blaming this on the Trump administration in particular and Republicans in general. The rabbi told NBC News that this is not a time for “thoughts and prayers,” but “action,” though he did not specify what “action,” precisely, he was demanding. So it’s time now to take a calm first assessment of the situation and to see what action might be warranted.
First of all, President Trump, to his credit, immediately condemned this horrific act as the first reports were becoming known. He did the same after the actions of that other member of the right-wing lunatic fringe, Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested Friday for having mailed pipe bombs to a number of prominent Democrats and critics of Trump.
Second, the problem is not “guns.” Guns are inanimate objects and do not kill anybody; people kill people, and it is there that the focus should lie. If we are concerned with banning inanimate objects involved in killing and maiming tens of thousands of people each year, the automobile would be a far better candidate for our attention than guns.
Rather, as numerous people including the president have already noted, what we face is a mental health issue.
We need to face the fact that there is a right-wing lunatic fringe just as there is a left-wing lunatic fringe, and that both are largely composed of atheistic nihilists. The attack on the Tree of Life is probably the most deadly attack on a Jewish institution in American history, but that does not mean that it isn’t part of a pattern. The assault on a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and the assault on a predominantly African-American church in South Carolina, and the assault on a church in the small town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, precede it.
The American constitutional system, as has been asserted in these columns numerous times, springs from a civil society that was steeped in Biblical morality, in the eternal values that G-d gave the Jewish people from Sinai and that are also a major part of the teachings of every serious Christian denomination. As several of the founding fathers of this country (most notably, perhaps, Samuel Adams) noted, the Constitution was written with a virtuous and vigilant people in mind, and is inadequate for any other.
Yet in recent years, well within my living memory, any sort of devotion to the traditional values of Judaism or Christianity has been dropped by a significant percentage of the American electorate. This, coupled with the repeal of the involuntary commitment laws which used to protect us by and large from the criminally insane but were occasionally abused, has led to the current situation.
The short-term, immediate answer, unfortunately, is that security of all houses of worship must be stepped up. In Europe, synagogues are largely non-descript and not obviously advertised from outside. Some such policy, as well as the employment of armed guards to stop another such incident, might now have to be considered.
Also, the overheated political rhetoric on both sides (is anybody on the Left listening?) has to be toned down, and toned down immediately. Irresponsible comparisons of Republicans to Nazis and fascists, as well as equally irresponsible cries of “Communist” among less printable epithets at Nancy Pelosi recently in Florida, have to stop, and have to stop immediately.
In the longer term, though, if we are going to remain united as a nation, we need to look to our national soul. The right and left lunatic fringes are only one symptom. Another is the widespread and near-epidemic phenomena of binge-drinking and opiate addiction affecting every level of our society. So far, we have been focused primarily on the supply side of the opiate question, but there is an obvious point being dodged by the policy makers precisely because it is uncomfortable. What is behind the huge demand for anaesthesia among the young people of this country? If there were no demand, there would also be no supply.
The only answer that I can arrive at is that far too many people lead aimless, purposeless lives in which they try to fill a void, yearning for structure and morality, with an inadequate secular ideology and sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.
If the trend is not arrested and reversed soon, the ranks of the atheistic nihilists, and of the twin lunatic fringes, will only grow and fester, and bring our experiment in self-government crashing down around our ears. To be replaced by … what?