We Are Squirrel Hill

I feel the need to say something about the horrific mass murder at Etz Chaim synagogue in Pittsburgh that occurred during Shabbat services yesterday.  Unfortunately, anything I could possibly say will necessarily be inconsequential and, quite possibly, both insipid and stupid.  I simply don’t have the words to make it better.  All over the world, our hearts go out to the families left behind, to the congregants and to the community at large.  But thoughts and prayers, lovely as they are, don’t seem nearly enough.  Neither does the condemnation of the accused and his actions, as voiced by President Trump.

Our president, like many others, says that gun control is not the answer, despite the fact that the same high-powered weapons of war used by our military are readily accessible to anyone with a little cash.  In fact, some believe that more guns is the answer, suggesting that this tragedy could have been avoided by an armed security guard posted at the door to the synagogue.  As it is, the falling rate of participation in organized worship, combined with competition from other synagogues in the area, has necessitated renting space at Etz Chaim to three different congregations (all of which were conducting services at the time of the murders).  Considering what it takes to make operating the building viable in today’s world, where would the money come from to hire an armed guard?  The necessity of that expense may well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, a financial stress sufficient to close the building entirely, to cause it to be sold to buyers intending to use it for other purposes, leaving three congregations without a place of worship.  Indeed, most small congregations are unable to bear such an expense.  Then there’s the dampening effect on the spirit resulting from our admission that, no, we can no longer fling open the doors of our religious sanctuary to all who wish to worship God, and that, yes, we recognize that we live in a world of such madness that families worshipping together is no longer a safe act, that our Constitution’s first amendment is being held hostage by its second.

What I fear most is complacency, the acceptance born of numbness, the sentiment that “oh, it happened again,” followed by shoulder shrugging amidst the conclusion that the horrors of mass murder, whether motivated by hate or otherwise, are an unavoidable consequence of a free society.  It is out of self-preservation that most of us choose to think of more pleasant things, else how could we go on tending to the needs of our jobs, families and communities?  I know.  I was deeply affected by the Sandy Hook massacre of innocents, and yet here I am still writing, six years later.  Our very sanity would be in peril unless we put such nightmares out of our minds.  And soon enough we forget, at least until the next one occurs, and the next one, and the one after that. Except for the mothers and fathers, the wives and husbands, the family members and friends.  They are the ones who are never able to forget.  The rest of us, however, throw up our hands and move on.  So is it really any wonder that bigots, racists, and assorted demented individuals continue to shoot up synagogues, mosques, churches, schools, workplaces, and music concerts?  There are days when I think that the primary reason they do it is because they can.

The answer, of course, is to make it so that they can’t.  When there are little children present who do not know right from wrong, we remove all dangerous objects from their reach.  The time has come to wake up and acknowledge that we no longer live in a rational society, that there are many children among us who, left to their own folly, will surely hurt themselves and others.  Congress needs to open its eyes and act in loco parentis and remove legal access to guns once and for all.  Otherwise, we can just forget about freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religion in a world where printing political cartoons in a newspaper gets your newsroom shot up, where speaking out on the issues leaves you riddled with bullets, and where attending Shabbat services to worship our Creator and fellowship with our communities ends in a bloodbath.  Before you vote in the midterms nine days from now, think about which candidates favor gun control and which candidates support the gun lobby and the prospect of more and more mass murders.

And so today, just as many carried signs and wore buttons announcing “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” three years ago, instead of murmuring thanks that it wasn’t our community that suffered this tragedy, instead of burying our heads in the sand, instead of hoping that we’re not next, we need to loudly announce “We are Squirrel Hill.”

For I am reasonably certain that if I lived in Pittsburgh instead of in California, I would have been present at one of the services at Etz Chaim on Saturday morning.  And I might not be here to write this.



The Second Amendment vs. The Sixth Commandment

gun imagebible picMake no mistake: I am against gun ownership. I know there are thousands of peaceful gun owners out there who will wax poetic about hunting, self-defense and target shooting. There is the powerful NRA lobby who like to tell us that it is people, not guns, who kill. I respect all these people’s opinions, and it is my sincere hope that they will respect mine in return.

I must say that the NRA has a point. If someone is intent on killing me, he or she will undoubtedly do so whether guns are available or not. My killer will just use a knife or an explosive device or bonk me over the head or run me down with a car.

There are dozens of civilized nations in this world that have had the sanity to outlaw the possession of weapons. Many people, my wife included, pooh-pooh this idea on the premise that if guns were illegal, only criminals would have them. This is probably true, but at least then we could tell the good guys from the bad guys. If someone were caught with a gun, we wouldn’t have to wonder whether it was purchased legally or stolen or obtained through a straw man transaction. We wouldn’t have to figure out whether the owner enjoys mental health of sufficient quality to merit owning a gun. I think of the old-fashioned dramas in which the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black. You can tell who is who. Today, I can’t tell who is who. I won’t hold it against you that you own a gun, neighbor. You use it for shooting at squirrels, right? Umm, right?

I guess I should modify that last paragraph. Even if guns were outlawed, it is not only criminals who would have them. Law enforcement would still have them. Anyone who’s ever played cops ‘n robbers knows that the police need guns. Both the cops and the robbers do the same thing with their guns, of course: They shoot people. As a native New Yorker, I feel bound to mention that, just this past weekend, the NYPD killed a teenager in Brooklyn and shot a motorist who tried to speed away from a traffic stop on Staten Island. Both of them had guns. See? If guns were outlawed, maybe they wouldn’t have had them and they wouldn’t have been shot. I know, I’m dreaming.

I think about the recent report of a man shot three people during a mediation session in Phoenix, killing one and injuring the others.

I think about the 15-year old girl who performed at one of President Obama’s inaugural events and was shot and killed in a Chicago park the following day. They haven’t found the guy yet, but law enforcement believes that the shooter may have mistaken the teen and her friends for rival gang members. Oops.

I don’t live in Chicago. I haven’t lived in New York for years. I live in small town America, and even here the number of people killed with guns blows my mind.

I think of the young mother who, while attending a wedding party at a bar on the main drag here in town, was shot to death by a guy whose gun “accidentally went off.” He didn’t intend to shoot anyone, you see. He was just beating someone up with the gun when it discharged. Oops.

I think of the young guy who shot and killed his girlfriend in the apartment complex a couple of streets over. I guess it really is a bad idea to be holding your gun while you’re arguing with your old lady. Things my mama never taught me.

So former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely injured during a public appearance in Tucson, spoke before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the end of January to urge gun control legislation. “Too many children are dying,” she stated, a reference to the twenty children and six adults killed at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut in December. “We must do something,” she said. “It will be hard, but the time to act is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

Indeed. Thomas Friedman, in a fine book about globalization, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, posited more than a decade ago that the lack of gun control in this country is nothing short of insanity. President Obama, reacting to the public outcry in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, has joined Gabrielle Giffords’ camp in asking Congress to act. But will our elected representatives be bold and courageous as she urges? I seriously doubt it.

After Ms. Giffords’ speech, which due to her injuries, she was able to give only with great difficulty, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick J. Leahy took the floor. “The Second Amendment is secure and will remain secure and protected,” he stated. “Americans have the right to self-defense and to have guns in their homes to protect their families. No one can or will take those rights or our guns away.”

I would ask Mr. Leahy to stop and think for a moment about the fact that the only thing a gun is designed to do is to kill. Whether it be a prize buck, an intruder into your home or 20 first graders, that is the only purpose of a gun.

I think about the moviegoers, out for a night of fun at a Batman premiere, who were gunned down in cold blood in a suburban Denver theater.

I think about the innocent students and teachers who were systematically killed in their classrooms at Virginia Tech.

I think about Columbine.

So which will it be, the Second Amendment or the Sixth Commandment? The right to bear arms or thou shalt not kill?

I believe that the Second Amendment was vital in the late eighteenth century when our infant nation was struggling for independence. The Founding Fathers knew what it was like to suffer under the thumb of a tyrannical regime that preferred that those rogue colonists have no weapons with which to challenge the ruling powers. Nearly two and a half centuries later, that time has passed. The need that existed then no longer exists now. Unfortunately, the Bill of Rights has acquired a sacrosanct aura that no politician who wishes to be re-elected will touch with a ten-foot pole.

I think about the Bible. I remember asking a Christian friend, years ago, why Christians have cast off the Old Testament rules when the Old Testament is still a part of the Christian Bible. The validity of those rules have passed, she explained, since Jesus paid for our sins in full with his blood. I believe that the Second Amendment has passed as well, it’s validity having been nullified by a world of gangs, drive-by shootings and Adam Lanza. We have paid for our sins in full with the blood of our children.

I have never visited Sandy Hook School, although I lived in the neighboring town of Bethel for several years. Newtown was a favorite of mine back then. Its diner was a regular stop on the way home after my shift ended past one in the morning. And I loved the book sales at the Charlotte Hungerford Public Library. I brought only a handful of books with me when I moved to California, but one of my treasured volumes from Newtown still graces my bookcase.

No, I had never heard of Sandy Hook School before that fateful December day. But, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, Ich bin ein Sandy Hooker. And my German accent is a lot better than his was.