Joyce Fienberg did not hate Robert Bowers. She had been attending synagogue daily since the 2016 death of her husband: she came there not for world domination but for comfort in her time of grief.
Richard Gottfried did not hate Robert Bowers. Had Bowers come to him with a toothache, he would have gotten the same care any other patient received during the 40 years Gottfried practiced dentistry alongside his Polish Catholic wife.
Rose Mallinger did not hate Robert Bowers. And even if she did what did he have to fear from a 97 year-old woman, even one described by her community as full of life and uncommonly vivacious?
Jerry Rabinowitz did not hate Robert Bowers. In a different massacre Dr. Rabinowitz might have given his life for Bowers: he died running into gunfire toward wounded victims.
Cecil and David Rosenthal did not hate Robert Bowers. The developmentally disabled brothers were universally known for their kindness: they were cared for and loved by a community and in return they cared and they loved.
Bernice and Sylvan Simon did not hate Robert Bowers. They were not octogenarian cogs in some sinister anti-American plot: the banners on their door read SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, GOD BLESS AMERICA and AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL.
Daniel Stein did not hate Robert Bowers. His thoughts were preoccupied with his family, especially the seven month-old grandson who will never know him.
Melvin Wax did not hate Robert Bowers. Were they introduced under different circumstances, the 88 year-old retired accountant would more likely have regaled Bowers with jokes, most of them clean.
Irv Younger did not hate Robert Bowers. Had Bowers arrived unarmed Younger, a volunteer greeter, usher and former JV basketball coach, would have welcomed him and found him a seat.
They did not hate Robert Bowers. But Robert Bowers hated them.
Nothing inspires thinkers like the unthinkable. With every atrocity pundits offer their educated opinions on why it happened and what we can do to prevent its recurrence. Many have pointed their fingers at Gab, the controversial “free speech” social network. Within hours after the shooting payment processors Paypal and Stripe and web hosting service Joylent dropped Gab’s accounts: soon thereafter GoDaddy terminated its registration service and as of this writing Gab remains offline. Others have blamed Squirrel Hill on Donald Trump: Bend the Arc Jewish Action told the President in an open letter that “yesterday’s violence is the direct culmination of your influence.”
To this thinker, responsibility rests with Robert Bowers. Bowers was not motivated by voices echoing in his misfiring brain: he decided that mass immigration was a threat to his people and that Jewish organizations were largely responsible. You may disagree with his premises and you certainly can (and should) disagree with his conclusion. But the evidence so far overwhelmingly suggests that Bowers chose to commit an act of terrorism: his actions show both premeditation and culpability.
But Robert Bowers did not exist in a vacuum. We can acknowledge his free will whilst simultaneously exploring the circumstances which led him to his decision. But any productive examination of those causes will require us to take a long hard look both at our opponents and at ourselves.
In early 2011, an anonymous blogger defined “stochastic terrorism” as:
the use of mass communications to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable. In short, remote-control murder by lone wolf.
ISIS and Al-Qaeda propaganda has been cited as examples of stochastic terrorism, as have numerous inflammatory comments by Donald Trump. But as is often the case one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Conservative critics might point to Kathy Griffin’s infamous “severed Donald Trump head” photo or to the recently popular Twitter tag #killkavanaugh. Everybody agrees there is lots of inflammatory and tasteless material floating around out there: everybody blames the other guy for it.
Are people wishing their enemies dead blowing off steam? Are they engaging in performance art to ingratiate themselves with their Left/Right leaning community? Are they sending out messages in virtual bottles hoping that somebody, somewhere will find their note and answer their prayer? Or are they part of an organized effort to turn disaffected loners into lone gunmen? Whatever they are, they have grown increasingly common as the electorate grows more polarized and the discourse more coarse.
Memetic warfare seeks to change emotional payloads and subconscious responses through shock and humor. The shock comes by way of “shitposting” material intended to elicit a powerful, often negative, emotional reaction. (Back in the days of Usenet we used to call this “trolling”). Stereotypes are bundled together and rolled into one big offensive package that would make Apu say “please to sacrifice them to your PC gods instead of me.” Most recoil in horror and are marked as normies, NPCs, bluepills, snowflakes, libtards, censors, prudes or whatever insult serves to mark them as Not Us. A few — those who get the joke and who sympathize with its message — pass them along like chain letters.
Like chain letters, these memes have low response rates. In a world where everyone is shouting, only the best become widespread. Most are quickly forgotten — but when you see dozens of these messages a day “forgotten” is a relative term. Albert Bandura’s Observational Theory suggests we pick up behaviors, including violent behaviors, based on social cues. And when a significant number of people are screaming we should rise up and take arms against the enemy, inevitably somebody will fail — or succeed — at understanding the metaphor.
Squirrel Hill may be our generation’s Birmingham Church bombing. The September 15, 1963 murders of Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), Carole Robertson (aged 14) and Denise McNair (aged 11) were a primary impetus for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The White moderates King castigated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail were outraged by the slaughter and became more supportive of the Negro cause. You didn’t need to be gung-ho about integration to think that killing little girls was a Bad Thing, or to feel uncharitable about the side killing little girls.
But it may also be our generation’s Columbine. When Eric Harris and Dylan Kliebold killed two teachers and eleven fellow students before turning their guns on themselves, a nation was horrified at the unprecedented carnage. Today school shootings have become part of the American way of life and many school shooters credit Columbine as their inspiration. The suicide epidemic among White males has for some time been a cause for concern (and mockery). 70% of all suicides in America involve White males: on any given day around 85 White American men die by their own hand. If one in a thousand decide to turn their rage outward rather than inward, we could be seeing several Squirrel Hills a month.
Terrorism teaches us that we are not safe, that at any moment we could face the suicide bomber, the sniper, the spree killer with a cause and a weapons stash. It revokes our privilege of staying above the fray and drags us into conflicts we would rather ignore. Instead of being a shield, innocence becomes a weapon. We do not know what Bowers hoped to accomplish at Squirrel Hill: perhaps his only goal was to kill Jews. But in a climate where violence and intimidation are normalized as political tools we should not be surprised to see an increase in acts of violence and intimidation. And in the age of clickbait, we should not be surprised if these acts become increasingly bloody and disturbing.
The blood shed at Tree of Life calls out to all of us. We all — Left, Right, Center and the various fringes thereof — need to consider the ways we contribute to our current overheated political climate. We all need to think about ways we can discuss points of contention rationally and politely. Failing that, we need to consider the human costs of our political goals and decide for ourselves how many innocent bodies we are willing to step over whilst building our Utopia.