The Tree of Life shooting: How did it happen?

The Tree of Life shooting: How did it happen? November 4, 2018

The tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was harrowing. How on earth could such brutal violence take place?

As I see it, there are at least three levels of explanation we need to confront. The first is socio-political.

Anti-Semitism and alt-right genocide

Before he opened fire at Tree of Life, Bowers shouted “all Jews must die.” Bowers’ Gab profile, a platform that calls itself “the free speech social network,” confirms that he harbored deep hatred for Jewish people. His posts contain anti-Semitic slurs, complained about Jewish people in the White House, and blamed them for helping migrant caravans enter the United States.

Hatred of Jewish people is not incidental to the agenda of white nationalists; it’s essential. White supremacism had been the law of the land until the success of the civil rights movement. And from a white nationalist perspective, it is baffling that a black-led social movement could have overturned this power structure by its own organizing efforts. And so, the white nationalist concludes that there must be some secret manipulator behind the scenes, some diabolical power orchestrating the downfall of white people everywhere.

Their conclusion? Jewish people. Throughout the civil rights movement, Jewish activists tirelessly worked for justice alongside African-American leaders. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965: “It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom—it has been so great.”

In more recent years, Jewish people have continued to respond to God’s biblical call to welcome the stranger. At Capitol Hill, in local communities, and at the US-Mexico border, Jewish advocates have ceaselessly worked to welcome and care for immigrants.

This is why white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally chanted “Jews will not replace us.” Because the Jewish community has worked to realize the Kingdom of God on earth, to build a more just, more equal, more welcoming society.

Put this together with horrifically lax laws around gun control (Bowers had twenty-one guns registered to his name. Twenty one.) and one can begin to understand how this atrocity at Tree of Life could have taken place. Before he entered the building, Bowers logged on to Gab and wrote “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The scapegoating of Jewish people

The second level of explanation for Tree of Life is psychological: white nationalists are using Jewish people as scapegoats. Scapegoating is when a person displaces her uncomfortable feelings and projects them on another individual or group. Often, this target group is more vulnerable. By persecuting the scapegoat, the individual can relieve his uncomfortable feelings and take refuge in self-righteous indignation.

Right now, white nationalists live in fear of an equalizing society. This fear, fueled by Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants and minorities, generates feelings of anger, frustration, and guilt. These are the uncomfortable feelings they are displacing and projecting onto Jewish people.

Scapegoating is more likely to break out in violence in poor economic conditions. In other words, scapegoating grows especially strong when there is some shortage, some competition, scarcity of some resource. In those cases, the boundary lines of “us vs. them” are sharpened. Definitions of who “belongs” grow more stringent in an effort to stay ahead.

In those times, Jewish people are the first to be excluded, and the first to be persecuted. For over 2000 years, Jewish people have suffered under motifs of hate and blame. Some scholars believe this scapegoating arose from Christians blaming Jews for the death of Jesus. Others believe that the Jewish identity as the “chosen people” of God, destined to be a “light to the nations,” portrays them as also responsible for every problem.

But ultimately, the socio-political and psychological factors show us how the horror at Tree of Life happened. To understand why, we have to turn to a theological level of explanation.

The violence of sin

The human person is fallen, and constantly tempted to sin. Giving oneself over to this sin does violence to the heart. Choosing sin over God rends the heart, tearing it into two and leaving us broken. As a result, sin dehumanizes us and turns us into the evil we choose. Perhaps nowhere is this more poignantly illustrated than in as Dante’s Inferno, in which he paints the punishment of souls according to the law of contrappasso.

The punishment of murderers in a river of blood. Centaurs by Gustave Dore, Illustration from “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri, Paris 1885.

It is only from a violence within the heart that such horrific physical violence can be born.

So our invitation is to examine our heart, to identify the dividing line that runs through it, and to work for healing. In this process, we should ask for the intercession of (newly-canonized!!!) Saint Oscar Romero.

“We have never preached violence, except the violence of the love that led Christ to be nailed to a cross. We preach only the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome selfishness and to eliminate the cruel inequalities among us. This is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love and fraternity, the violence that chooses to beat weapons into sickles for work.”

Let’s embrace the violence of love in our heart, our society, and in the community of Tree of Life Synagogue. Saint Romero, pray for us!

Further reading recommendations

Read this article from Plough on the relationship between the amazing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Rabbi Heschel’s introduction to MLK on March 25, 1968, he said: “Where does God dwell in America today? Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy? Is He not rather with the poor and the contrite in the slums?”

The Scandal of Redemption is a great selection from Saint Romero’s homilies, diaries, and letters.

Watch Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s take on the problem of human suffering.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Do you think, maybe, that left-wing antifa attacks *might* have something to do with the rise of the right wing bigots?

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “The Tree of Life shooting: How did it happen?”

    The Tree of Life shooting: Why did god ( assuming he/she/it exists) do nothing to prevent it from happening?

  • C_Alan_Nault

    “The Tree of Life shooting: How did it happen?”

    According to the Bible, god is responsible.

    Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

    Amos 3:6 shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?

  • Yes.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Definitely. Antifa is a direct reaction to the rise of the “alt-right” in 2015. Antifa started making headlines more than a year after the alt right did, and the headlines consistently lagged a few months behind my own observations in both cases. The amount of neo-nazi activity in 2015 and 2016 in many progressive spaces was *staggering.* Lots of online harassment of Jewish people, sending of death threats, sending of old-school nazi symbols and propaganda, that sort of thing. I’m really not surprised that antifa started trying to combat all that because it was honestly disgusting what was going on.

  • That’s interesting, because I never heard the term “alt right” until *AFTER* Antifa started breaking car windows.

  • TinnyWhistler

    You don’t remember all the to-do about racist frogs during the campaign? That made a LOT of headlines.

  • That was 2016. That was *after* Antifa started protesting in my area.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Donald Trump started tweeting Pepe memes in October of 2015. Pepe had already been appropriated by the alt right for MONTHS at that point, just by my own observation. Probably longer, since I was only seeing the spillover outside of their own spaces. I honestly don’t know why you didn’t see anything about it until 2016 because it had already been in full swing for quite a while by that point.

    The frog memes certainly weren’t the only thing going on, though they were ridiculous enough that I figured they had the best chance of being picked up by people not actually paying attention to how the alt right was operating during the campaign.

  • Maybe because I long ago decided to ignore irrational and irrelevant data when talking about human beings?

    Donald Trump didn’t even enter my consciousness as a politician until he suddenly started beating real politicians in February of 2016, and I ignore twitter considering it a technology that only twits would use.

    At that point I already knew that whoever ended up the next American President would be worse than Obama, just like Obama was worse than Bush II, Bush II was worse than Clinton, Clinton was worse than Bush I, Bush I was worse than Reagan, Reagan was worse than Carter, Carter was worse than Ford, Ford was worse than Nixon, Nixon was worse than Johnson, Johnson was worse than Kennedy, and Kennedy was worse than Eisenhower.

    You’d do well to ignore Trump’s Twits. He only uses that channel to put out disinformation for his enemies.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Sure, so you didn’t care that the Republican primary process was harboring someone who was giving huge winks and nods to the neo nazis until it started to actually affect you. That’s fine.

    My point is that antifa as we talk about it in the US is a reaction to alt right activity that accelerated during 2015. That activity was not restricted to purely far right spaces like Stormfront. It leaked into the “mainstream” web in a big way starting in 2013 and by 2015 it was everywhere. You didn’t see much “antifa” activity in the United States (There are other people who call themselves “antifa” in Germany who have been reacting to neo nazis showing up in a twisted sort of pilgrimage for decades but they’re not the same people) until 2016, and that’s about when I started hearing people talking about being completely fed up with the alt right as well.

    Richard Spencer’s been doing his Richard Spencer thing since like 2008, though like I said none of this started to “leak” into the normal web in a big way until the end of 2013.

  • I don’t care about racists on the left or the right because I consider them to be irrational human beings who can’t think their way out of a wet paper sack. That goes for Antifa as well as the Alt Right, both of whom I consider to be irrational racists.

    I only care when they disrupt order. I despise chaos, and I’m in Portland, OR metro region where Antifa disrupts traffic regularly and where the police have a “do not arrest any protests until they start damaging property or killing people” policy, which destroys the ability to have any sort of an orderly society.

    What they are complaining about on both sides, is so irrational that there is no way to fit it into an orderly society, so I reject the whole bunch as being just a bunch of low-IQ ID 10 T errors that should have no right to vote.

    Republicans and Democrats are both liberals to me; I now consider liberty to be the biggest threat to morality and order.

    It would be more rational to throw out the constitution entirely and have deep learning AI choose leaders based on merit alone.

  • TinnyWhistler

    “I don’t care about racists on the left or the right”
    I guess we’ve got a fundamental disagreement here. I care very much about the racists. Whining that we don’t like knowing about the racism and being annoyed that someone dare speak against it is what allows it to flourish. It plagued the abolitionist movement, it plagued the civil rights movement, it was a key component to the rise of Hitler, and it’s still happening today. It’s the primary objection to the Black Lives Matter movement in general: “*I* haven’t personally seen any widespread, systemic disregard for black victims of violence, so it must not exist. How dare you make this about race!”

    I’m sorry, but I find that attitude extremely frustrating, order over justice. It’s been the justification for allowing bigots to do as they please for a very, very long time.

    The United States was founded amidst a flood of rhetoric on the importance of justice over order. It’s sad that the opposite has come to define so much of our history.

    I’d be interested to know how you define “liberals”

    I agree we could use a Constitution overhaul. We were among the first to have something like it and everyone else got the chance to learn from our mistakes in drafting it. Good luck with that though.

    AI is only as smart as its programming and machine learning is only as smart as the data it learns from. How would you determine who’s in charge of quantifying “good” in a way that’s able to be analyzed like you propose?

  • My definition of liberal is strictly etymological: People who think liberty is a solution. That includes liberty for bigots. Liberty isn’t a solution, liberty creates the problem.

    Justice and order go hand in hand. There can be no justice without order, there can be no order without justice.

    The rejection of the lessons of the last 20 centuries are what cause bigotry.

    Every time I look into ANY charge of racism by the police, I find exactly the same behavior that I as an autistic draw from the police. Acting out of norm, leads one to be suspicious enough to get extra attention. All the more reason to support law and order rather than chaos; for where there is order, defense is easy, where there is chaos, defense is impossible.

    In other words, I don’t see that complaint as being real enough to acknowledge. It’s an irrational complaint based on incomplete and irrational data.

    Placing justice over order or order over justice can only in destroying both and creating chaos. Chaos isn’t worth it. With justice and order, the law is known and can be planned for; with chaos, no planning is possible.

    That’s why *every* revolution ends in tyranny. Every single one. Every time there has ever been a revolution, it has ended in tyranny. The revolution is just a waste of time and money, all it does is replace one tyrannical structure with another.

  • -MARK-

    What does Antifa have to do with the shooting in a synagogue or with anti -semitisim?

  • Their violence has now inspired new violence from the opposite side. Violence begets violence

  • -MARK-

    What side were the people in the synagogue on?

  • In general, people in the middle are seen as being on the other side in a civil war. By BOTH sides. Jews have historically been targeted by both fascists and communists.