On solidarity and mass violence

A young mom was walking with her child in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill area shortly after the synagogue murders there on October 27. Shaken, she told a TV reporter that this kind of thing doesn't happen here, people don't worry about guns. Left unsaid was that it happens in other parts of the city. The safe, protected, even privileged quality of her daily experience was destabilized.

It's normal to feel shattered in your home self at those moments. I felt it, though I'm distanced from the Toronto area I grew up in. It too was leafy, hilly, and safe. Before we moved from downtown when I was nine, there was some anti-Semitism; fights at recess because I was "the Jew."

Afterward, those moments were minimal and verbal, like a chef where I worked calling me Little Jew. But I too was shaken by the Kristallnacht echoes in Pittsburgh, and not only because one victim -- Joyce Fienberg -- had been in our class at Holy Blossom here. We may see ourselves as generically human, or individuals. But we all arrived in a particular form. You are who you were, along with whoever you've become.

What I puzzle over, in these moments, is why they aren't also seized on as opportunities to augment compassion for others: to understand, for instance, what it's like in areas were people do worry about guns (as perhaps that mom did, though not in the clip). A chance to extend solidarity -- a word that might sound bombastic or beautiful to you, depending -- to other parents who worry that their sons might be killed by guns or police, as even Obama said he would if he had boys. The reaction of those other parents might be reciprocal solidarity: Welcome to the club.

The great missed chance, I felt, was 9-11. Naively, I hoped Americans might grasp the experience familiar to so many of being invaded and bombed by aggressive foreigners -- like Haiti in 1915, Santo Domingo in 1965, Beirut in 1982. Vietnam, India, China. Silly me.

It did the opposite, creating a thirst for revenge stoked by insiders with plans for a "new American century," who used it "creatively" to invade Muslim nations and impose ongoing hell (up to and including Yemen) on people with zero connection to 9-11. Or the sad response of young Americans who enlisted idealistically and lost lives, limbs and youth. This week, a wiser character on Seal Team -- after losing another unit member -- said, "We don't ask why we're here."

Maybe what's more amazing is that some people do use those events to extend empathy and create links of solidarity. After Quebec City's mosque shooting in 2017, synagogue members in Toronto formed human defence lines around mosques here. Now, I learned this week, Muslims will do the same around synagogues.

I heard about it at a benefit for Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish's Daughters for Life organization. In 2009, three of his daughters died in their Gaza home from Israeli shelling. His response was a book, I Shall Not Hate, and the DFL, which sponsors girls from mideastern countries to post-secondary education.

I think it's largely arbitrary whether you choose to be amazed that people don't learn solidarity from these catastrophes or that they do. Either you're shocked when humans behave badly, or you're shocked when they don't. But the fate of our species may depend on which way the balance tips.

Let me note one other experience that could engender solidarity: indignity. At Izzeldin's benefit, they honoured Bethlehem's first woman mayor, Vera Baboun. She spoke forcefully. Her husband was jailed for three years for actions opposing Israel's control of the West Bank. After his release, the garage he owned was destroyed by shelling. She said he gave up then -- he's died since -- and handed the task over to her: "both sword and shield."

Palestinians have suffered unspeakable indignities, though they're hardly alone. But recently, Americans and other Westerners have felt the indignity of Trump's "leadership." It's been humiliating and laid a burden on their mental health. But it's also an opportunity -- to unite with others who've been mortified by foul leadership and suppression. The resistance in many places are now known as indignadoes, which contains both the words "indignity" and "dignity."

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Cam Miller/Flickr

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