On the afternoon that the first of the funerals for the eleven people killed at the Tree of Life synagogue, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, were held, a crowd began to spill over the street and onto the sidewalks and lawns along a stately stretch of Beechwood Boulevard. There is not a word in the American lexicon for such gatherings—the semi-spontaneous assembly of people in the wake of tragedy, who are united by both grief and by anger, and whose public mourning serves to reaffirm their civic bond to one another. But we need such a word, because this ritual happens frequently enough to be familiar—so frequently that its purpose need not be explained to those in attendance. “Are people here to protest against Donald Trump?” I asked a man in the crowd. “They’re here because of everything,” he answered.
“Everything,” in this instance, meant the entire sequence of events that had preceded the shooting deaths of Rose Mallinger, Melvin Wax, Joyce Feinberg, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Irving Younger, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Jerry Rabinowitz, and Richard Gottfried; the factors that had enabled them; and the subsequent ways in which the murders have been woven into the larger rubric of premeditated American tragedy. Tree of Life now enters a glossary of such events; among them, the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of another mass shooting, on June 17, 2015, in another house of worship, committed by another white nationalist, became the closest case study.
Jamie Gibson, the senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, which is not far from the Tree of Life synagogue, had helped to organize a vigil three years ago, for those who had died in Charleston. The attack in Pittsburgh on Saturday brought recollections of that vigil back into focus. “I think that the people who devise these plans and get hold of these murderous weapons have created an entire world in their mind where it makes sense,” he told me. “They have an enemy. The enemy is an African-American, the enemy is a Jew. And they can only feel safe if they protect themselves.” Malcolm Graham, whose sister Cynthia Graham Hurd was killed at Emanuel, told me that hearing about Pittsburgh “was like a punch in the gut.” The news had pulled him back to the moment when he learned of his sister’s death. J. A. Moore, whose sister Myra Thompson was also killed at Emanuel, told me, “My first thought was how this was going to affect all the family members in that community. It immediately flashed me back to June of 2015.”
In Charleston, a member of Emanuel had told me that the process of healing was made doubly difficult by the fact that the attack had claimed the lives of people who would otherwise have steered the church through difficult times, including its pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who also served as a state senator. Those who died at Tree of Life were said to be among its most faithful attendees, part of the nucleus of a larger congregation. The attacks also share an inscrutable dissonance of heavily armed men firing rounds at utterly defenseless targets: the oldest victim in the synagogue was the ninety-seven-year-old Rose Mallinger; the oldest in the church was the eighty-seven-year-old Susie Jackson.
The architects of these atrocities are white men whose fury was amplified in the echo chamber of the Internet. Notably, both shooters conceived of their actions as a form of self-defense. Robert Bowers, the man accused of the Pittsburgh shootings, reportedly wrote, in his last post on Gab, a social-media network favored by the alt-right, that he would not stand by while his people were “slaughtered.” In Charleston, just before Tywanza Sanders, a twenty-six-year-old member of Emanuel A.M.E., died, he asked the gunman, Dylann Roof, why he was committing murder. Roof replied, “Because you all are raping our women and taking over the world.” Roof’s language was striking because, just a day earlier, in a gaudy, absurdist spectacle in Manhattan, Trump had declared his Presidential candidacy, citing a scourge of Mexican rapists as part of his motivation.
Albeit in vastly different ways, Trump and Roof were responding to a common Zeitgeist of racial paranoia. [Continue reading…]