Collier’s Weekly: Why Justice Is Incomplete in the Synagogue Shooting Trial

The verdict provides relief, but much more work remains.

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It has been a long five years in Pittsburgh.

Since Oct. 27, 2018 — the darkest and most violent day in the city’s history — we have waited, not too patiently, for the facts of the synagogue massacre to be laid out in court. The verdict was never in doubt; the terrible details were never in question — and were not challenged by the defense. The significance of the trial, which on Friday resulted in 63 guilty verdicts, was psychic; with the trial out of the way, perhaps some measure of healing would take effect.

Not moving on; for Squirrel Hill, and indeed for the city at large, this is a scar that will never fade.

Undoubtedly, however, there was some relief for the victims, their family members and the community on Friday afternoon. A court finding carries with it the weight of history; it is now a matter of record who committed these depraved acts — I make it a habit not to use his name — and why.

Just don’t call it justice. Justice is incomplete.

I’m not talking about sentencing. The question of whether the killer’s remaining days will be brutally short or torturously long is incidental. Rather, justice will be incomplete until we look beyond one evil man and stare unblinking into the abyss that created him.

Massacres such as this do not occur because a lone killer snapped or didn’t see the right therapist or didn’t have the right childhood. Often, they happen because a person is radicalized into a set of beliefs. As the prosecution showed last week, this massacre was not random or unmotivated; it was the logical conclusion of a paranoid and increasingly virulent strain of hatred that exists (even thrives) today.

The killing in Squirrel Hill was the result of anti-Semitism, a particularly common brand of bigotry that is increasingly tolerated and hand-waved both on the internet and in conversation. Fringe social-media networks were perfectly willing to host and display the synagogue shooter’s hatred; despite some nominal efforts (undertaken mostly for public relations), internet service providers and technology platforms did little to prevent those networks from operating.

And if you think that part of the problem has at all improved in the past five years, I assure you it hasn’t. In 2018, the shooter had to go on fringe networks to espouse his hatred. Today, the world’s richest man has ensured that one of the largest social networks in existence is welcoming to white supremacy and other forms of bigotry. (This is particularly true of anti-Semitism, as the billionaire in question has shared hateful messages himself.)

We cannot ignore the prevalence of these thoughts and the ease with which they can be exchanged. Nor can we deny that the impersonal, emotional nature of social media, online video sharing and other fragmented forms of internet discourse make such prejudices worse, not better. There are those who pretend that the internet, if left untended, will allow the truth to rise to the top. It has become blatantly obvious that is incorrect; unless social media and other forms of online communication are carefully moderated, they elevate and amplify mankind’s worst and most ignorant opinions.

Unfortunately, in the wrong forum, terrible opinions can convince a lot of people.

We also must be careful not to assume this is merely an internet problem. There is a great streak of contemporary defensiveness about bias, prejudice and racism. Many people are desperate to declare and to maintain that they could not possibly be prejudiced.

“This problem couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me.” “I’m not racist.” “My community harbors no prejudices.” “My country does not have a problem.” “The problem isn’t bigotry, it’s people being accused of it!” “Don’t divide us!”

If the subject matter weren’t so dire, such juvenile, foot-stamping denials would be funny. As it is, they’re sad. Implicit bias is real; generational prejudices are real; systemic racism is real; the weight of history bears down on all of us. None of us has completed our education. None of us has fully stamped out our biases.

We cannot continue to declare ourselves aside from the problem; we need to honestly and earnestly examine ourselves and our communities.

Part of that involves admitting that the road to the type of extremism displayed by the synagogue shooter is just that — a road, and one that begins with some fairly common viewpoints. Part of that involves not running and hiding when the facts of history and the realities of society are presented. And, most importantly, part of it involves not pretending that tragedies like the synagogue shooting are isolated incidents.

Until we confront these things honestly, justice will not be done.

Categories: Collier’s Weekly