When Terrorism Hits Home

Mourning the victims. Pittsburgh, November 2018.

It’s about ten blocks. Six west on Reynolds to Dallas; south a couple of blocks; then right on Wilkins, up a steeply bending street past Linden School and the Five Points Bakery to the top of the rise. At Shady and Wilkins the land crests; from here, Squirrel Hill declines past Negley and the old Wilkins School eventually into Oakland. This is my route to work when I ride my bicycle. Exactly 1.3 miles from my garage, at the top of Squirrel Hill, is the Tree of Life synagogue, the point at which my 8.4 mile commute goes from climb to coast.

Terrorist actions, like any punctuated events of great public importance, cause us to map our own relationship to them. We all remember and recount stories of where we were when we heard about the 9/11 attacks. (I was just waking up in Los Angeles and my wife, in Texas, called to tell me to turn the TV on.) But when we were close to those attacks, we are even more driven to diagram our position to them—the role we almost, or did, play in history.

On 27 July 1993, the Sicilian Mafia detonated two car bombs in Rome, one at San Giorgio al Velabro, a minor but ancient church near the Roman Forum. I was at the time working at St. Stephen’s School, at the south end of the Circo Massimo, just over a mile from the bombed church. I heard the bomb go off that night in my little suite at the boarding school.

I ran my third Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers placed two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line on Boylston Street. Three people were killed and almost three hundred injured. During my post-race lunch in the Seaport area, my phone started “blowing up” with people calling and texting to check if I was OK. Having finished about ninety minutes before the bombs went off, I had no idea that something had happened at the race until I looked out at the marina and saw a machine-gun-equipped pontoon boat patrolling the harbour.

On 27 October 2018, I was entering a Korean grocery store to get ssamjang and gojuchang when my wife texted me about an active-shooter situation in Squirrel Hill. As I was on my way home reports of deaths emerged. By the time I got home the full extent of this tragedy was quickly becoming clear. A gunman, screaming anti-Jewish slogans, entered the Tree of Life synagogue and, with the de rigeur AR-15 and a trio of Glock handguns, in approximately ten minutes shot over a dozen mostly elderly Jews, killing eleven, to protect the US against a ragged caravan of poverty-stricken Hondurans who were walking up a highway thousands of miles away. A bris was taking place in the synagogue at the time. We learned that evening in an official press conference that at least he had not murdered the baby.

The massacre at Tree of Life, Cesar Sayoc’s pipe bomb spree, the racial murders at Jeffersontown Kentucky—all of these horrors in just one wretched week were the inevitable byproduct of a chief executive who has regularly offered moral support to white nationalism and race-based terrorism. I know the “imagine if Hillary” game is tired, but really: compiling Trump’s record on this just since 2015, when he dismissively referred to two of his Trump-slogan-chanting supporters who assaulted a Latino man as “passionate” is stunning. Judge Curiel, “shithole countries,” “infestations,” “I’ve never heard of David Duke,” Charlottesville. White nationalist leader Steve Bannon was right in saying that by “flooding the zone with shit,” Trump escapes responsibility for any one offence. And that white nationalist was the chief White House strategist.

What moves Trump’s effluent from being merely the fulminations of a sociopathic dictator-wannabe to a more sinister place is that other leading indicators of fascism are also ticking up. The party in power is increasingly open about using voter suppression, executive actions, and a packed judiciary to thwart democratic governance. But the party itself is losing power because of the compromises it has made with its new leader. In both 1922 Italy and 1932 Germany, a conservative political establishment, confronted by the energy of revanchist populist movements, took a risk: they granted them limited power, calculating that Mussolini and Hitler were such amateurs they could be controlled. But Vittorio Emanuele and Hindenburg bet wrong, and it increasingly looks like Paul Ryan did too.

Perhaps the central feature of fascism is the bureaucratic yet still gleeful floridity of the state’s actions against the weakest. From its first days, this administration has flaunted its willingness to employ the terrible powers of the government against Muslims, immigrants, children, transgender people, people of colour. Even when those policies are halted by the courts, or so sloppily designed they go nowhere, they still succeed because the administration’s ruthlessness is enacted in public and the “grownups” in the ruling party do nothing more than feebly frown. The cruelty, as the saying goes, is the point.

Fascism, though, isn’t just enacted in the halls of power. Because it celebrates violence as an end in itself, it must perform that violence, ideally against the most vulnerable. Street-gang auxiliaries often handle this in order to give the actual leaders cover while still sending the clear message that resistance will be met with violence. As Rebecca Onion wrote last week in Slate, the blackshirt squadristi of the Fascist movement showed Italy that Mussolini really was a politically incorrect leader who meant what he said. Hitler’s SA did the same in Germany a few years later. The marchers in Charlottesville were disquieting, but no mainstream Republican groups explicitly endorsed them (although of course the President obliquely referred to them as “very fine people”). More ominous, as Onion points out, is the recent embrace of the paramilitary “Proud Boys” movement by establishment Republican groups and candidates.

The earlier terrorist attacks I experienced gave me momentary terror, of course, but also a frisson of vicarious danger. Both were thrilling more than scary. But this felt different, closer.

Fascism seeks to divide and isolate, first by exercising performative cruelty on the weakest, then by undermining any independent groups that don’t owe loyalty to the Leader or the Movement. Fascism’s violence—both officially sanctioned and the collateral, deniable violence of “passionate” freelancers—is autogenerating, spawning and feeding on itself, and unpredictable. The message is that for those outside of the Leader’s protection or the Movement’s aegis, violence is always possible, whether from a tire iron or a citizenship-revocation order. You’ll never know where it’s coming from.

Trump isn’t responsible for the Tree of Life, or even for the pipe bombs. But both are products of the fascist cultivation of arbitrary violence in which he is deeply complicit. The point is to erode community, the ties that bind diverse groups together, ultimately leaving nothing but the larger whole: Trump and “our movement.” That this act was aimed at one of the healthiest minority enclaves in the U.S.—the tight-knit Jewish community in what Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor (and Tree of Life neighbour) David Shribman has called “the least anti-Semitic city in the country”— underscores how fascism’s fundamental goal is to divide and replace.

Because of this, this terrorist action, so much more than the others to which I have been adjacent, hits home. I’m not Jewish, but I am part of the community writ large that was targeted. I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for over fifteen years. I knew some of the victims’ names; one, ninety-seven-year-old Rose Mallinger, was the mother-in-law of a friend. For years, the Squirrel Hill JCC was my second home.

But in a larger sense, it’s the nature of the attack more than its targets that I find most troubling. The Sicilian Mafia and the Tsarnaevs were striking against the ruling power. The violent acts of Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc and Gregory Bush were not endorsed or sponsored by the state or the governing party, and they have been duly (if rotely) condemned by the president and his cable-news emissaries. But given what has happened in America in the last three years it’s hard not to conclude that in some third-hand but still essential way, they are part of the constellation of “our movement”. This time, unlike in Rome and Boston, the call is coming from inside the house.

Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.