Saturday, a man armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and multiple handguns killed at least 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue where congregants were gathered to celebrate the birth of a child. The alleged gunman, identified by authorities as Robert D. Bowers, shouted anti-Semitic statements while he indiscriminately shot into the crowd. He also fired on responding officers, injuring six people. He was taken into custody and by Saturday night, faced 29 federal charges.
The horrific violence hit close to home in Sacramento, especially for Mayor Darrell Steinberg and members of his synagogue, B’nai Israel. In June 1999, it was one of three local synagogues targeted by two white supremacist brothers who firebombed them in the early hours of the morning. Later, the two men, Benjamin Matthew Williams and his younger brother Tyler, firebombed an abortion clinic and killed a gay couple – Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder – while they slept in their Happy Valley home in rural Shasta County.
The Sacramento Bee asked Steinberg for his thoughts on Saturday’s hate crime, and what it means for our local communities.
Like all of you, I am sickened and horrified by the shooting in Pittsburgh this morning. As a member of the Jewish community and the mayor of our city, I cannot adequately express the sadness and anger I feel when another despicable act like this rips through our country. Once again, the appropriate thoughts and prayers for innocent victims, for people praying on a fall Saturday morning, and for men and women sworn to protect us, seem hollow and not nearly enough.
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This time, evil struck at a synagogue. But it could as easily have been at another African American church, another gay nightclub, a women’s health clinic or a mosque.
In a week when women and men who have held the highest offices in our country were sent bombs to their homes, it is hard to ignore the impact that words used in our political sphere have on our country and these endless traumas. Words matter. People bent on violence often act when they are told again and again that political opponents are enemies, that immigrants are criminals, that those who espouse white supremacy are somehow still “good people.”
Enough is beyond enough.
Words are powerful. With words, we can create anything we dream. With words, we can bring people to greater understanding of one another. Or we can use words to divide and destroy. Words can pollute the minds of those who are sick and looking for meaning in their lives.
Words draw people toward good or toward evil. It’s long past time that we allow words to be sloughed off, as “He’s just saying that … you can’t take everything he says seriously, “ or, “I agree with his policies so I’ll ignore the rest.”
Saturday’s senseless act of hate underscores once again how important it is for us to resist tribal impulses that lead us to classify our fellow humans as something alien to us, something that doesn’t share in our very flesh and bone. After my synagogue and others were firebombed in 1999, I worked for years to establish a place where people could come and learn the principles of tolerance. The Unity Center opened in 2017 in downtown Sacramento. Its inaugural exhibit was titled “We are all Californians.”
We are indeed all Californians. But beyond that, we are all Americans. And beyond that, we certainly are all humans, whether we are Jewish or Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, gay or straight, black or white, Latino or Asian Pacific Islander, whether we are a transgender person who feels the U.S. government has turned its back, or a desperate Central American mother fleeing to the safety and liberty that the United States has always stood for.
Our country is in need of healing that must be driven, sustained and amplified by our nation’s leaders. We must all do our part to elevate our commitment to speaking up, speaking out, treating one another with kindness and good hearts, and standing up when others are threatened or harmed by hate and intolerance.
The Bible says, treat the stranger as thyself. It’s called the Golden Rule, an ancient tenet found across religions. We would all do well to remember it when we are tempted to think of those we disagree with as something other than our fellow travelers on a terrestrial ball in a universe that is far beyond our knowing.