I’m reluctant to write what feels like a prediction, but events in Pittsburgh compel me to speak.
Many interpretations of the shooting are being circulated. One interpretation is worth repeating: There is a clear connection, a cause-and-effect sequence, between Donald Trump calling economic refugees, walking to the U.S. from Honduras, “invaders” with ties to Middle Eastern terrorists and Central American gangs, and the killing of 11 Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27 by 46-year-old, white-nationalist Robert Bowers.
Trump’s language, as we’ve come to know, is the language of ridicule, reduction, dismissal and demonizing. He pigeon-holes competing Republicans and Democrats as corrupt, low energy, lazy, inept and (comically) liars.
He characterizes the nation’s “mainstream” journalists as purveyors of “fake news.” They are not, mind you, writers of difficult, incomplete, unfolding news, but “fake” or illegitimate news. He depicts Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals, with a few “good” ones amongst them. He characterizes the men and women, who were critical of, or opposed to, his Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, as “a mob.”
His is the language of dehumanization and division, particularly between some supposedly “great” America and the people, external or internal, who would (in his opinion) do it harm. It (Trump speak) is oversimplification, it is distortion. But this is the president’s way of describing our current reality to Americans who are predisposed to vilify, who need scapegoats to blame for their difficult, confusing, or dead-ended circumstances, or for their inability to navigate an increasingly complex, diverse and environmentally challenged nation.
When I was a boy growing up in the Bronx in the early 1960s, my parents, Hungarian Holocaust survivors, would occasionally tell me about the circumstances they and their parents, siblings, aunts, and uncles faced as the Nazi noose began to tighten around the nation, in 1944. I listened as they provided stories of family members too trusting (and, thus, too paralyzed) to act, people who believed in the goodness of Hungary, in the nation’s commitment to keep them — “loyal citizens” — safe.
My parents’ accounts horrified, and mystified, me. As a youth, I couldn’t grasp how Hungarians “turned” from being generally inoffensive neighbors, co-citizens, co-workers, to killers. What moved these so called “Christian” Magyars to see Jewish people, like my parents and our extended family, who were genuinely committed to the nation’s well being, as a danger that needed to be eradicated. This dark puzzle is what the Pittsburgh shooting has helped me understand.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we’re at the start of a nationwide anti-semitic campaign, or that American Jews are in imminent danger of suffering genocide. I am saying that if we look carefully at the events of Pittsburgh, we can see the relationship between the dehumanizing, destabilizing rhetoric of Donald J. Trump, American president, and the actions of people like Bowers, who fully ingest his garbage.
Leslie Kelen, Salt Lake City, is a child of Holocaust survivors and the author/editor of five books, including “This Light of Ours: Activist Photographers of the Civil Rights Movement.”