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Memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Did the Tree of Life Shooting Change America?

Sadly, three years after a massacre in Squirrel Hill, hatred continues to reign.

Three years after it took place, the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill manages to feel like both ancient history and a still-burning flesh wound.

When we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, as a culture, it doesn’t appear we’ve processed the lessons of that dark day.

And what were the lessons of Oct. 27, exactly? What was the curriculum of cruelty supposed to teach us that day? Alas, the question is rhetorically empty and ridiculous if one takes into account all of the triggers that have been squeezed since that awful Saturday morning.

Three years after a gunman entered the sanctuary at Wilkins and Shady where three congregations gathered for Shabbat, the propaganda machine that fanned his smoldering hatred into an all-consuming fire has only gotten slicker and more malevolent.

Hatred of that magnitude formerly confined to the fever swamps of the internet, right-wing talk radio and tiki-torch protests is now mainstream. The road from the Tree of Life to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has been paved with exponential growth in television ratings and public tolerance for acts of political violence that were once unthinkable in America.

The accused Tree of Life gunman had no accomplices in the building when he turned his weapons on defenseless worshippers. The inchoate hatreds of thousands of men just like him were inserted into every used and unused bullet. He was alone in squeezing the triggers of the guns he carried, but he was far from alone in spirit. He was Legion, the demoniac who bore the weight of too many fellow demons to number.

Each round the killer fired gave expression to the hates and fears of a community of frustrated losers like him who saw in his brazen act of mass murder a rationale and inspiration for their own homicidal fantasies.

Within minutes of the first reported shots in the synagogue, the websites that provide platforms to America’s worst citizens were filled with expressions of envy and congratulations by the suspect’s fellow Nazis and white supremacists.

It was one more act in a bloody daisy chain of racist rebellion and provocation that emboldened the acts of murder and mayhem that followed.

The moral anarchy that fuels the threats against school district superintendents, principals and teachers today over masks and mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations are not-too-distant echoes of the hatreds unleashed three years ago.

The Tree of Life shootings were in turn, echoes of the murders committed at Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina a few years before that. Even that massacre reverberated with the unique disharmonies of the hundreds of mass shootings that predated it.

This country has often provided an echo chamber to extremism and murder. It is considered every American citizen’s God-given right to be as hateful as they want to be as long as that hatred is restricted to the rhetorical level.

The problem is that hateful rhetoric has a way of eventually inspiring hateful acts. Add to this the constitutional right to unhindered access to assault weapons and handguns, according to the amoral majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.

The seeds of a future act of violence were on full display earlier this week at the Turning Point USA event at Boise State University. Charlie Kirk, a boyish-looking demagogue, was taking questions during the Q&A for his so-called Exposing Critical Racism tour when an audience member shamelessly asked a question that the synagogue shooter answered three years ago.

“At this point, we’re living under corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns?” the smiling but clearly unhinged man asked his hero, even as a few groans registered vague disapproval.

“No, and I’m not — that’s not a joke,” the man said doubling down on the homicidal drift of his question. “I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally, where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

Knowing that their exchange was destined to end up online, Kirk tried to defuse the insanity so his organization wouldn’t be implicated by any act by a potential mass murderer waiting for his blessing.

“They [the left] are trying to make you do something that will be violent that will justify a takeover of your freedoms and liberties, the likes of which we have never seen,” Kirk said to his wild-eyed acolyte and his like-minded compatriots in the audience. He stressed that the Joe Biden “regime” wants conservatives to respond violently so that there’s an excuse to crack down on dissent.

Reinforcing the paranoia of his followers is in line with the current propaganda model perfected by the talking heads at Fox News over the last five years.

Tucker Carlson, the most influential voice on cable news, has managed to reframe the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6 as a false flag operation engineered by the FBI, a rogue intelligence agency that was determined to undermine Donald Trump’s presidency from the beginning.

Carlson argues that the people arrested for attacking the Capitol are patriots, not insurrectionists, and that they have been framed by their government when they should be celebrated for embodying the spirit of rebellion that led to the establishment of our democratic republic.

Carlson and his colleagues at Fox have also provided a daily platform for promoting the Big Lie that the majority of Republicans now claim to believe: that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and that Biden is an illegitimate president.

Polls conducted between February and this month indicate fluctuating but disturbing percentages of Republicans and Democrats who believe violence against members of the opposing party would be justified in the current political climate. 

Three in five white evangelicals are convinced that Biden is an illegitimate president. Their susceptibility to propaganda provides a vast, gullible audience for lies designed to facilitate Trump’s return to power. This lust for proximity to power has existed in American Christianity for centuries, but it took the contagion of Trumpism to expose it to the unhypocritical light of day. 

Kyle Rittenhouse, the armed teenager who shot three white protesters — killing two of them during Black Lives Matter protests last summer in Wisconsin — goes on trial next week on several counts of murder and attempted murder.

His situation has already been reframed by conservative media as a case of an American innocent singled out by a vindictive liberal criminal justice mob for defending himself against left-wing anarchists trying to kill him.

The fact that Rittenhouse, who has become a darling of white supremacists and anti-government protesters, has any sympathy at all — especially on Fox News, where he has been sainted in advance of his  murder trial — tells us everything we need to know about how nebulous the lessons of the Tree of Life massacre turned out to be.

Extremists and their causes have never had more mainstream acceptance than they do today.

Even as we solemnly marked the third anniversary of one of the most notorious mass killings in American history, the forces of violence and reaction in this country continue to prove themselves completely incapable of shame or self-reflection.

The go-to question for far too many Americans remains the same as it has always been: “When do we get to use the guns to kill these people?”


Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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