Will people remember Squirrel Hill?

By Stephen Renas
Three days after the Oct. 27, 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh that left 11 dead, Jews in the Dayton area came together to mourn. Those from the community at large were invited to participate. In my estimation, one-third of those in attendance were not members of the Jewish community. It was heartening that the Pittsburgh tragedy engendered such an outpouring of support from members of other faiths.

Many Jews in the United States who are millennials or younger may never have even encountered an act of antisemitism. Indeed, philosemitic sentiments, in which Jews enjoy the goodwill and respect of so many of our fellow citizens, abound. Yet an event such as the Pittsburgh shooting gives us pause and forces us to reexamine whether our complacency is well founded.

Many of us today are aware of the antisemitic screeds that appeared in Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent in the 1920s and of Charles Coughlin’s antisemitic radio broadcasts in the 1930s. Following the Second World War, antisemitic sentiment tended to wane, but our improved fortunes were at times marred by acts of violence.

On Oct. 12, 1958, The Temple (Hebrew Benevolent Congregation) in Atlanta was bombed. On March 25, 1960, a 16-year-old boy threw a bomb into a synagogue in Gadsden, Ala. and then fired on two congregants with a shotgun, leaving them injured. On Oct. 8, 1977, a shooter attacked following a Bar Mitzvah in St. Louis, killing one and injuring two in a synagogue parking lot. On April 13, 2014, a man opened fire at a JCC and at a Jewish retirement community in Overland Park, Kan., killing three.

This is a non-comprehensive list and does not take into account cemetery desecrations, vandalism, bomb threats, and other acts of intimidation.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, the number of antisemitic incidents in the United States — after declining over the period 2006 to 2013 — increased in each subsequent year and was nearly 57 percent higher in 2017 than in 2016, in part due to an increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses. The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017 featured hundreds of antisemitic and racist marchers, many of whom displayed Nazi salutes, waved swastika-emblazoned flags, and shouted, “Sieg Heil.” The event resulted in the death of one counterprotester.

We might like to believe that the public outrage over the Squirrel Hill murders will persist. However, there are several reasons to suggest that it won’t. In the hours and days following such a tragedy, the event dominates the news cycle as well as the public’s thoughts.

But as time passes, the event recedes in people’s minds because they have started to process it, and because their day-to-day responsibilities and concerns vie for their attention. In addition, people have become partially desensitized to news of a new shooting because of exposure to news of so many previous shootings.

Excluding shootings resulting in fewer casualties, since about the middle of 2015 we have borne witness to a shooting in June 2015 in a Charleston, S.C. African American church resulting in nine deaths; one in December of the same year in San Bernardino, Calif. resulting in 14 deaths; a shooting in June 2016 in an Orlando, Fla. gay nightclub resulting in 49 deaths; a shooting in October 2017 in Las Vegas resulting in 58 deaths; one in November of the same year in a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas resulting in 25 deaths; a shooting in February 2018 in Parkland, Fla. resulting in 17 deaths; one in May of the same year in Santa Fe, Texas resulting in 10 deaths; and one in November of the same year in Thousand Oaks, Calif., following the Squirrel Hill tragedy, that claimed 13 lives. There was a time when an American flag flying at half-staff was an unusual occurrence. Today, it seems almost commonplace.

The public may conflate all these shootings, especially the ones at the Squirrel Hill synagogue, the Charleston, S.C. African American church, the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, and the Orlando gay nightclub, viewing them all as hate crimes. The first two were in fact hate crimes. The shooter in Squirrel Hill walked into the synagogue and shouted, “All Jews must die.” The shooter in Charleston, a white supremacist, later confessed he wished to start a race war.

The last two, while still tragic, were fundamentally different. Authorities determined that the Sutherland Springs shooting at the Baptist church was not motivated by racism or religious animus but instead by a family dispute that turned deadly.

Similarly, it appears that the Orlando shooter may not have even been aware that the club in which he opened fire catered to gay men, so his act did not constitute a homophobic hate crime. He even inquired where the women were.

Only the Squirrel Hill and Charleston murders were crimes motivated by hatred toward particular groups of people — Jews and African Americans, respectively. But this distinction may not be readily apparent.

The Squirrel Hill shooting in all likelihood represents the deadliest attack directed at Jews on American soil, but it certainly does not represent the deadliest attack in this country.

Had the carnage been greater, and thank goodness it was not, would the public be more likely to remember Squirrel Hill?

Interestingly, greater carnage is more likely to induce a weaker and shorter-lived response, and not a stronger and longer-lived response, because of a concept called “psychic numbing.”

As Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon has shown, there is a limit to human compassion. As the number of victims in a tragedy increases, our empathy does not increase as one would intuitively think it should.

He demonstrates that this phenomenon starts when the number of victims in a tragedy increases from even one to two and that the human mind has a difficult time processing the concept of large numbers of victims.

So rather than a larger number of victims evoking greater empathy, a larger number of victims could conceivably evoke greater apathy. This, according to Slovic, is why it is so easy for people to ignore mass atrocities.

And perhaps this phenomenon makes it easier for those who, for their own malign reasons, try to convince others that the Holocaust never happened.

Stephen Renas is a forensic economist who lives in Beavercreek.

To read the complete January 2019 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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