Brandon McGinley is a Pittsburgh writer and editor.
It doesn’t change anything that one of the worst attacks on Jews in American history happened in a neighborhood I know, five blocks from my middle school. The victims and their community do not feel any more pain or grief or terror because I can visualize the intersection of Wilkins and Shady. The dead are no more dead.
And it doesn’t change anything that the man who is alleged to have committed this massacre lived five minutes from my childhood home, on a road I still travel often. His motives are no more pernicious or frightening due to that proximity. It shows that hate is everywhere — not just hate, which every person harbors at some point in his life, but that special kind of explosive and self-destructive animosity that drives a man to throw away everything to satisfy it.
But, still, it feels different, close, personal. The local news anchors talked about how shocking it was that something like this could happen here. It was, I suppose, a nice thing to say on a hard day, but who could believe it? After all, this kind of thing has happened here. Eighteen years ago a Pittsburgh man obsessed with non-white immigration shot his elderly, Jewish neighbor and lit her body on fire, then went on a two-county spree, killing four people of color and shooting up two synagogues. Nine years ago, another Pittsburgh man motivated by a different kind of hateful obsession killed three and wounded nine at a women’s fitness class before killing himself.
For locals, it was especially poignant that this attack occurred in Squirrel Hill. One of the largest remaining urban Jewish enclaves in the United States, Squirrel Hill was cosmopolitan before Pittsburgh became cosmopolitan (again). It was until recently one of the few places in the city where one could reliably hear languages other than English. In the middle of a recovering Rust Belt city, Squirrel Hill has long represented a different America from the old working-class neighborhoods: broadly diverse, socially privileged, economically secure.
More of Pittsburgh looks like Squirrel Hill now, but for too many people what it represents seems more distant and more threatening than ever. Full of generations of professors and lawyers and doctors and, yes, Jews, it is a perfect place for the culturally aggrieved to fixate on. So, yes, I was surprised to hear the news — but in the way one is surprised to hear an active fault has ruptured: You never know the day it will happen, but it was a matter of time.
I wish I could say that someday the history books will record my city as the place where this stopped, but I can’t, because they won’t. The social wounds that lead to the creation of communities that nurture rage cannot be stitched up with enlightened legislation or aggressive law enforcement or some generalized commitment to tolerance. This will continue to happen.
As the massacre unfolded, I was driving across town to speak at a small conference about creating a Christian politics based in the truth of the Imago Dei — the Biblical teaching that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The group was an offshoot of the American Solidarity Party, an as-yet tiny movement to organize an electoral force based on Christian Democratic principles.
That concept of solidarity returned to my mind again and again Saturday. I thought about the special (and not always salutary) relationship between Christians and Jews, and the duty in solidarity we have to them based on that special relationship — and based on our shared participation in the Imago Dei. But I also thought about how, perhaps more than anything else, our society suffers from a lack of solidarity, a deficiency of understanding that we share something valuable as Americans and as human beings, a lack of commitment to fulfilling the duties we have to one another not because we choose those duties but because they are implied in our dignity.
Solidarity, though, is more than warm feelings toward the marginalized and threatened. It is a virtue, and a virtue is a habit. The habit of solidarity begins not with sending thoughts or even resources to those distant from us, but in the hard work of healing our relationships with those closest to us. Solidarity begins when we welcome a struggling or frail or difficult friend into our homes, when we reconcile with an estranged family member, and when we perform specific acts of charity for specific people in our near orbits.
Healing a society in this way is more like rehab than stitch work; it takes a long time, maybe a lifetime, maybe more than one, and then constant vigilance after that. And it begins at home by recognizing that there are wounds right in front of us and within us that demand our attention. This won’t stop someone from lashing out in some distant city, but it could, one day, save one town or one neighborhood or one family from a pain such as Pittsburgh’s today.