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One Year Later, Why the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Matters

One year later, the details of the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh still shock the conscience. Eleven dead at the hands of an armed intruder who said he wanted to “kill Jews” he blamed for bringing “immigrant invaders” into the country. A white supremacist who entered a synagogue on a Sabbath morning with the intent to kill as many people as possible.

Even now, it is hard to imagine how an individual could become so infected with hateful beliefs that he could walk into the Tree of Life building and then stalk and shoot in cold blood individuals from three different congregations who came together for the simple act of prayer. It is even harder to fathom how this could have happened in Pittsburgh, a city well known for its diversity, its neighborliness, its legendary sports teams and top universities – not for fostering hate. This was the last place a mass-shooting hate crime was supposed to happen.

The city of Pittsburgh and the nation were left to pick up the pieces and answer the same questions that arise out of any act of domestic terrorism: Why did it happen? Could it have been prevented? And, more importantly, how could we stop something like it from happening again?

To these questions was also added: Why was violent anti-Semitism, the kind we have rarely seen since the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915, suddenly making a comeback in America?

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the last question should have been asked after Charlottesville, more than a year earlier. The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh was the logical outcome of the “Jews will not replace us” chants that we first heard from white supremacists in Charlottesville in August 2017. And the question of how we could have stopped such an attack should date back even further, after a racist gunman attacked the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015.

Pittsburgh was the latest blaring siren that our nation’s political leaders should have heeded.

Since Pittsburgh, we’ve seen this same scenario play out again and again. Six months to the day of the shooting, there was Poway, Calif., where another white supremacist, apparently sharing the world view of the alleged Pittsburgh shooter – and reportedly inspired by his actions – stormed into a Chabad synagogue and opened fire, killing one and injuring several more.

Poway was preceded by the shootings of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand (55 people killed), and followed by El Paso, Tex. (22 people killed, with the shooter allegedly targeting Hispanics), Dayton, Ohio (9 people killed) and, most recently Halle, Germany (two people killed). in connection with an attack on a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Each of these shootings was carried out by a lone white gunman who saw a threat to the “white race” and was radicalized by online racism. Each sought to inspire others by broadcasting his actions and hateful ideology on social media, using the same memes and calls for action. They all targeted minorities, including Jews, Muslims, immigrants, African-Americans and Latinx.

Pittsburgh, sadly, was the escalation of an existing trend and began a year of assaults against Jews and other minorities. And the Tree of Life massacre continues to haunt us because the threat of domestic extremism that it augured is just as potent as it was a year ago. In fact, it is now becoming a global threat as well.

Consider this: In the year since the Pittsburgh shooting, there have been no fewer than 19 attempted attacks, plots or threats of violence by white supremacists. In at least 12 of these incidents, Jews or Jewish institutions were targeted.

Despite this, our government has not adequately stepped up to the challenge posed by domestic extremists. After each tragedy, a community mourns, and our country grieves. And nothing substantive gets done to prevent the next one.

In part this is a function of the paralysis gripping our political process. With polarized politics, divided government, congressional gridlock, and a volatile executive branch, it seems the institutions of government cannot deliver.

There’s no panacea, but the federal government and Congress can easily take the first steps to respond to this emerging threat. First and foremost, every person in a position of political power should use the bully pulpit to speak up against the hate that has gripped our country.

Congress should immediately take up bills that address the gap in data about domestic terrorism and resourcing to this threat through the Domestic and International Terrorism DATA Act which was recently passed by the House, and the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act. In addition, Congress should immediately pass the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act. This legislation would authorize incentive grants to fund improved local and state hate crime training, prevention, best practices, and data collection initiatives.

What’s more, in consultation with legal and policy experts, marginalized communities, and law-enforcement professionals, Congress should closely examine whether it is necessary or possible to fill the gap in the law caused by the lack of a domestic terrorism statute without violating First Amendment speech and association rights.

In short, the challenge of countering and preventing domestic terrorism, and specifically white-supremacist violence, requires us to think anew. Like other forms of extremism, white-supremacist violence will not be solved by a single piece of legislation or executive order. It is a global disease that mutates and expands with alarming frequency.

There is no single antidote that can stop the spread of this metastasizing evil. But a different mindset can help us frame an approach to begin to mitigate it.

_Jonathan A. Greenblatt is CEO and National Director of ADL (the Anti-Defamation League). _

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