As a Jewish professor who has published on terrorism, I’ve been asked a number of times for my thoughts on what happened in Poway. At first, I had nothing to say that has not been said a thousand times before.
The shooter (I will not dignify this person by using his name) had an assault rifle, which, thankfully, jammed. So in the perverse world we now live in, only one person died and one rabbi is maimed. As opposed to over sixty dead or maimed.
The incident was born online, announced online, and (in another failure) supposed to be streamed online. So maybe we should look harder at controlling the hate-filled social media sites this person frequented. And the choices those controlling social media make. For example, Twitter decided against treating white supremacy like ISIS because that would mean banning some Republican politicians. So white supremacy can run free on Twitter, never mind that some Republicans are evidently white supremacists.
And then of course, there is our President, who said, in response to Charlottesville, that that the neo-Nazis were really there to protest taking down the Robert E. Lee monument. (I guess the chant “Jews will not replace us” was a coded reference to the Confederate general).
Again, all of which has been said before, and frankly, said better than I could.
But then, I read the shooter’s manifesto, and I realized there’s something we are not talking about.
Generally, we talk about terrorists as if they come from another planet. In the nineteenth century, for example, Fenian and radical terrorists were dismissed as “the mad and the bad,” “their aims are quite unintelligible, except on the supposition that he is affected by insanity,” as the Birmingham Daily Post explained it in 1883.
Jumping ahead, Don DeLillo, in Falling Man (2007), has a character describe the 9/11 terrorists in the same terms: “these people, you can’t even think it. You don’t know what to do. Because they’re a million miles outside your life.”
Terrorist justifications for what they do seem equally bizarre and unrecognizable. Reading Osama bin Laden’s justification for 9/11, “Why We are Fighting You,” I want to shout, using John Oliver’s incredulous intonation, “what are you TALKING about????” For example, Al Qaeda attacked the United States because “you are the nation that permits usury, although it has been forbidden by all the religions.”
Insane. A million miles outside your life. Freakish reasoning. If not utterly insane, then the terrorist is a disturbed loser, like Dylann Roof, living on the margins, unable to cobble together a decent life, and so blames someone else, in his case, African-Americans, for his troubles. All are easy ways to distance ourselves from the people who commit such terrible crimes. They are not us. But when we look at the background of the Chabad of Poway shooter, and when we read the manifesto he posted, these defenses fail.
This person was not a loser destined for a lousy life. He came from a stable family, raised in a comfortable suburb, and admitted to Cal State University, San Marcos, where he was studying to be nurse. This person also had the benefit of being taught the piano from age 4, his favorite piece: Chopin’s Scherzo no. 2. The manifesto shows that this person is both a very good writer and very intelligent.
In sum, the person who committed this horrific act is, on the surface, no different than most of my students at San Diego State University. The kind of poison this person imbibed, the beliefs he says inspired his act, i.e., “Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race,” can infect those who we might expect to be immune to racism and paranoid fantasies.
A solid family didn’t stop it. A good education didn’t stop it. Music didn’t stop it. We can’t assume that the terrorist is, as academics put it, “Other.” Not one of us. Different. The rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States (the Anti-Defamation League just reported that the number of assaults against Jews increased sharply from 2017 to 2018) reaches into places we thought it couldn’t or shouldn’t reach. Nobody is immune.
And it should be noted that murderous racism is intersectional. While the Poway shooter directs his hatred primarily against the Jews (“Your crimes—innumerable. Your deeds—unacceptable. Your lies—everywhere”), he also has nasty things to say about Hispanics, Blacks, and Arabs. Really, anyone who is not, as he says, “of European ancestry.”
So what to do? There are no easy answers, especially since the Poway shooter self-radicalized through the web. Unlike in Europe, we have free speech laws that allow for the expression of toxic ideologies, and besides, racist forums such as the one on 8chan he used to post his manifesto can always find a host outside the United States.
So we have to work within the system we have, and that means public pressure on our politicians. At a minimum, we need to have the Trump administration restore funding to programs intended to fight domestic terrorism. Trump’s coddling of white supremacists (“there were very fine people, on both sides” in Charlottesville) and his downplaying of white supremacy’s importance (asked if he sees white nationalism as a growing threat, Trump said, “I don’t really. I think it’s a small group of people that have very, very serious problems”) need to be called out and denounced loudly and publicly at every opportunity.
And finally, in November 2020, we need to vote to remove every politician who supports or encourages racism either overtly or tacitly. If the problem lies in us, then it is up to us to solve it.
Peter C. Herman is a professor of English Literature at San Diego State University. He works on Shakespeare, Milton, and the literature of terrorism. He is the editor of the recent book Critical Concepts: Terrorism and Literature.