The Shootings in Pittsburgh
Coming on top of the murder of two black men at a grocery store in a Louisville Kentucky suburb, and the many packages with pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats, the murders in Pittsburgh raise terrible questions about what is going on in America. Some commentators I have heard on the radio take the easy way out and blame it all on Pres. Trump. But that is not helpful. Pres. Trump did not invent anti-black or anti-Hispanic racism; Pres. Trump did not invent anti-Semitism or the mass murder of Jews. The most one can say about him is that he is encouraging the open expression of different forms of hate.
Hate is everywhere. Conservatives hate liberals. They can't stand to listen to them. Their beliefs and arguments seem so transparently faulty that it is difficult to see how anybody with just a grain of intelligence could be a liberal. A lot of liberals hate positions they regard as extreme, for instance, the people on the political left who want to abolish capitalism and replace it with democratic socialism. They have equal disdain for people on the far right who want to reduce the role of government to that of the policeman who keeps the peace in the streets.
Red Sox fans genuinely hate supporters of the New York Yankees and Yankees fans feel the same about supporters of the Red Sox. But they do not go out and kill each other. Conservatives don't ambush liberals. Liberals do not murder leftists or extreme libertarians. But the hatred that comes to the surface in America today is murderous hatred. It is the hatred that animated both parties in the Civil War. It is the hatred that animated lynchings of Black Americans and progroms against Jews in 19th and early 20th century Eastern Europe. It is the hatred that wants to kill. It is not all hate that concerns us but the hate that needs to destroy or that applauds the destruction wrought by others.
Not all killing is motivated by hate. There is a great deal of killing in our world which does not particularly involve hatred. 17 years ago after 9/11 we "had" to invade Afghanistan in order to show that we were not weak and that we were going to punish the people somehow involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. I'm not sure we hated the Afghanis; we had no reason to hate the Iraqis. We had other reasons for killing them.
In lynchings, in progroms, in killings of black churchgoers or Jewish worshipers the victims somehow threaten the survival of their killers and their people. Whereever they have lived among Christian people, Jews have been felt to be a threat to these Christian communities. Whites often feel threatened in their identity as whites by the existence of black communities, especially by thriving black communities. The church and synagogue shootings were not perpetrated by white people just because they did not like black people but by people who thought their white identity required destroying black persons. Typically far right white supremacists talk about the white identity being under threat and needing to be defended. They talk about being the victims of "white genocide." The survival of whites requires that Blacks, and Jews, be killed.
If we are going to understand these shootings in churches and temples we need to understand the persons whose identities cannot coexist with other groups of people. The shooter did not only detest members of the group killed. He could not continue to be himself as long as they lived. His identity was under acute threat.
"Well," you say, "these people are more or less insane. The threats they feel are unreal. What we need is better mental health care for people like that."
That is a comforting thought and if there are only a few persons who go out and commit murder, who are motivated by some completely unrealistic fear for their existence, it would, of course, be very sad and upsetting, but it does not show that anything is amiss in our society, except that we let people out in the street who should be locked up.
But this morning's New York Times reports there were a sizeable variety of pages on Instagram with names such as "#jewsdid911" in "a torrent of anti-Semitic images and videos uploaded in the wake of Saturday's shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue."
The shooters may have gone over the edge and acted out their fears about their white identity but there are a significant number of people in the America today who feel under attack by the mere existence of people who are different. The mere presence of a group of may be 4000 impoverished and frightened central Americans 1000 miles away from our borders in Mexico causes them acute anxiety. These people are different. They make the Americans feel terribly insecure.
This is not just an odd fact. It is a display of a social disease, of a widely distributed personality disorder. The support for racist attacks and murders is not the only symptom of this widespread personality disorder. There are a number of reports that the counties that gave exceptional support to Donald Trump in the 2016 election are also counties with exceptionally high rates of drug use, drug overdoses and suicides. Groups that fear people who are different who feel their white identity is being threatened by people not classified as white feel extraordinary insecurity about their own identity and their own worth. Drug abuse and suicide may well be the result of those profound insecurities.
This is not an underhanded attempt to blame the President for wide-spread drug abuse or suicide. It is instead to point out that the president's supporters are frequently persons who hate persons different from themselves and feel mortally threatened by them. Their sense of themselves, their sense of their worth and the worth of people like them is feeble. They do not know who they are other than that they are different from people with brown skin, from people practicing a different religion from theirs.
There is a goodly number of such people in the US and when someone murders people by whom they feel threatened, they applaud.
The difficult question with which the murders in Pittsburgh, or in Louisville Kentucky confronts us has to do with the existence of significant numbers of Americans who are seriously afraid of people different from them so that they welcome when someone murders black people, Jews, Muslims. Our culture is seriously deficient because it does not allow everyone to grow up feeling secure in who they are so that they can tolerate differences.
We need to look at our national cultures to understand this problem, at what we teach young people about what makes life, their life, and their person worthwhile, at what we teach young people about what is really important in life.
The nation needs to ponder these questions in the wake of the latest mass murders.