The murderous, hate-filled attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue has shaken not only that city and its Jewish community, but something the lies at the core of the American identity. Even more than the lunatic who mailed bombs to critics of President Trump – and he was bad enough – this killer violated a central tenet of Americanism: The thirst for religious freedom drove many early immigrants.
It was a hard weekend in this country. The mail bomber also broke our social compact – or what remains of it – by seeking to make his voice heard through violence. But there have always been kooks among us, some of them seeking to shed the blood of those they cannot abide.
This is different. It’s not just that this shooter killed 11 people and wounded six others, though that alone would make it a worse crime. It’s even more disturbing because the attack inside the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh drags this country into the kind of anti-Semitic mud that Americans have associated more with Europe and other places than with their own nation.
It’s not that anyone could pretend anti-Semitism doesn’t exist here. It does. Sometimes it’s below the surface and sometimes it erupts into public. Saturday’s attack was one of the deadliest ever on America’s Jewish community.
It’s no secret that the country is becoming increasingly splintered. That is, in some part, a function of the internet, where extremists can find each other, amplifying their fantasies and risking the kind of evil that stormed into the Tree of Life congregation on Saturday morning.
Pittsburgh is not a place anyone would expect such hatefulness to break out. It’s like Buffalo in that regard. But it could happen here. Only last year, Buffalo nearly became the location of the country’s next AR-15 massacre. It was foiled only by the heroic actions of witnesses and police.
That’s only one of the reasons it was encouraging that 500 people of many faiths showed up Sunday night at Temple Beth Tzedek in Amherst to honor the victims of Saturday’s unspeakable violence and to stand against it.
But more is necessary. Robert D. Bowers, arrested in that shooting, had spewed his hatefulness in public, through a “free speech” social network called Gab. Anyone who comes upon that kind of free speech here should make sure police know about it. It Pittsburgh teaches us anything, it’s that no community is immune.