April 5, 2020

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Thoughts on Pittsburgh (Divest This!)


Outrage, Reason and Art
When a horrific attack like the one that took place in Pittsburgh this weekend occurs, especially when your own community is the target of murderous hate, first instincts turn towards comforting the afflicted coupled with feelings of outrage. Analysis, at such a time, can seem almost in bad taste.
Fortunately, comforting the afflicted comes naturally to our people (and, by “our people” I mean Jews, Americans, and all decent human beings), and one needs no guidance on whether or not to feel outrage when bodies are still being counted. But if we want to understand what happened, with the goal of preventing it from happening again, some attempt to determine what the hell is going on is required before default explanations begin to kick in.
The Tree of Life Synagogue is obviously not the only vulnerable target to suffer homicidal gun violence in recent years with school shootings dominating the news alongside attacks on other targets chosen largely for high concentrations of members of a particular group (students, Jews, blacks, or victims chosen at random) that have neither the means to shoot back, nor the expectation that returning fire was their responsibility.
When the dust settles, arguments will largely turn on traditional causal explanations for these sorts of mass killings with many fingering the wide availability guns while others asking us to focus on the shooter as an incarnation of evil or a victim of mental illness.
Both explanations are reasonable, given that these murders are committed with something (guns, usually powerful ones) by someone (a killer who is only comprehensible as someone whose moral and mental makeup makes him different from the rest of us). But each fails to explain why these sorts of mass killings are happening so frequently now versus some other time in the past.
Starting with firearms, shooters have always outgunned the kinds of the communities subject to attacks, such as public schools and houses of worship, going back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse and blunderbuss. This doesn’t mean that the availability of modern, powerful weapons doesn’t increase the lethality of such attacks, but it does raise the question of why schoolrooms and other vulnerable locations have not been shot up, even with less merciless firearms, for centuries. Unless one wants to claim that increases in firepower cause increases in frequency of shooters targeting the innocent, there must be some other explanation as to why so many of these kinds of mass murders are being committed at this point in history.
Mental illness, including the need to spot and treat the mentally ill (or at least get them off the street) before their affliction can lead to butchery is often brought up as a retort to the “guns are responsible” explanation. Since focusing our attention on the person who committed a crime is just as intuitive as a focus on the tools he used to commit it, there is a logic to trying to get into the head of a killer, even if we are not ready to excuse the anti-Semitic hate that motivated this weekend’s shooter as resulting from a mental disease beyond the trigger-puller’s control.
Once again, however, we need to ask ourselves if some new forms of mental illness have emerged in recent years that have as their symptom the transformation of people into school and synagogue shooters. Mental illness, after all, has been with us far longer than guns which leaves us asking the same questions as before: why this form of violence, and why now?
I had the opportunity to think about this earlier this year when a murder spree slightly less close to home (the Parkland School shooting) took place right around the same time I sat through Steven Sondheim’s most challenging musical Assassins.
The play is built around a fantasy scenario in which presidential assassins (Booth, Oswald, Leon Czolgosz who killed President McKinley, Charles Guiteau who shot Garfield) and wannabes (such as Reagan’s attempted assassin John Hinkely as well as Squeaky Fromme and Sara Jane Moore who failed to plug Gerald Ford) are hanging out together in some unexplained netherworld, waiting for the moment to commit their crimes and experience the consequences before returning to ongoing dialog (set to music) with their fellow assassins.
The question permeating the script is why a group from different backgrounds and living in different eras all came to the same conclusion: that shooting the President of the United States was a reasonable course of action.
“I will be remembered!” shouts Charles Guiteau, just before he falls through the gallows after his successful assassination of Garfield, and many other lines of dialog point to these murderous acts as providing a purpose or point to the lives of men and women who would otherwise die forgotten losers. In other words, their murderous acts were motivated by an existential desire to have their lives mean something, anything, regardless of the cost to them, their victim, and the nation.
When reason fails to provide explanations to the inexplicable, art can sometimes fill the void. In the case of Sondheim’s Assassins, the answer to “Why now?” might come down to living in a society and age when everyone desperately wants to be noticed, remembered, admired, even for acts of heinous brutality. As we grow to more and more measure our self-worth in hits and Likes, or compare ourselves to the famous and infamous and perceive ourselves as wanting, well “why not shoot a President?” (as a narrator in Assassins asks) or someone else?
These thoughts should in no way be perceived as an attempt to divert attention from gun violence and the fight against its causes, or the need to ensure the deranged and hateful are locked away or put underground (or at least disarmed). But they do point to a factor we should be considering before retreating to our usual corners to debate what to do next, namely, what is it about the world today that makes mass murder seem a reasonable answer to the question “Who am I?”

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