We all have at least one old friend about whom we sometimes wonder, “why do I still associate with this person?” I have a friend from high school who could not be more different from me, or from the people who I usually spend time with. When I come across this person’s comments on social media, I dread the possibility that I might one day have a reunion with him, where our undeniable political and cultural differences will be thrown into stark relief without our computer screens and thousands of geographical miles to protect us from the shock. He lives in small town America while I make my home in a large urban center on the west coast; I went to college and rabbinical school while he served in the U.S. military; he has two children from a second marriage and I have only begun fatherhood from my (please, God, first and only) marriage…
A few days ago, when a twenty-year-old gunman entered an Oregon community college and killed ten students, injured several more, and finally turned his weapon on himself, these differences reemerged in a profound way. My friend took to social media to comment on the tragedy. But instead of expressing his sadness or concern for the victims and their families—a sentiment that we certainly shared—he lashed out in anger about President Obama’s call for more gun regulations. Even this I could understand. Opinions about the best way to keep the American public safe have been divided along this issues for many years, and no amount of evidence or rhetoric would move the needle one direction or the other.
What really bothered me were his remarks about the shooter. For my friend, the ready access to guns was not the problem. He believed that if more people in the college went to class armed (as is their right under the Second Amendment of the Constitution), the perpetrator would have met with resistance and fewer would have perished.
Guns are not the problem, my friend wrote. The problem, in his opinion, is Islamic extremism and our government’s unwillingness to do anything about it.
This astounded me. I had not heard that the gunman was a Muslim or that his attack was motivated by religious sentiment. Did I miss that in the news? I decided to do what any sensible person might do when dumbfounded by unexpected information: I consulted various news sources through Google. What I found was that the individual was not Muslim, and his targeting of Christian students at the college may have been motivated by hatred of organized religion in general. His act of senseless killing was just that: senseless.
Senseless killing is one of the first concepts we encounter in the Torah. In Parashat Bereishit, after we learn about the creation of the world, the first human beings, their eating of the forbidden fruit and subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden, we learn about the first murder. Cain, the first of Adam and Eve’s sons, murdered his brother, Abel, after God found the latter’s offering more acceptable. As his punishment, Cain is made to roam the Earth for the rest of his life and he fears that others will know what he did and will kill him for it. So God places a mark on him, a sign of God’s protection against vigilante “justice”.
God understood that real justice is served when the guilty are punished by the rightful authorities and by no one else. It is a central value of our tradition that a person who commits a crime should be prosecuted and sentenced by the proper judiciary. The establishment of just courts is one of the fundamental mitzvot that sustain our world. We are enjoined to seek justice, not revenge.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is all too easy to exact vengeance. If someone does something we do not agree with, it does not take much effort to shame them on the internet. If we feel hurt, we can start online forums and petitions to destroy the livelihood and reputation of the perceived offending party that, though satisfying in the moment, never actually address the underlying societal problems that are doing us harm. But we find solace and satisfaction in leaving our targets in ruins.
Think back to the controversy that erupted several weeks ago when millions expressed outrage at an American dentist who shot a supposedly beloved lion in Zimbabwe. Did anyone really care about poaching in Africa when Cecil the lion was killed? Did anything change in the world of trophy hunting after a campaign was launched to discredit and vilify Dr. Walter Palmer, the hunter at the center of that controversy? Of course not, but everyone felt better after taking him down a peg.
So in the wake of my friend’s post about the shooting in Oregon, I confronted him by sending him the results of my research about the perpetrator. “What made you think he’s an Islamist extremist?” I asked. “What news sources are you reading that say that?” His response: “You can’t always get the truth from the news.”
Senseless killings are far too common today. As President Obama recently remarked, “Somehow this has become routine.” But we’re also having a nasty run of senseless vengeance. In the aftermath of the Umpqua Community College tragedy, an awful rumor about Muslim extremism is taking the focus off the issues we desperately ought to address — issues like campus safety, mental health care, and access to weaponry. Instead, unfounded rumors are creating a false buzz about the true motivation for this attack.
It feels good to find a scapegoat. It is far more satisfying than staring in the face of violence that comes from a place of dark nothingness. And Muslims have worn this target time and again since the attacks of September 11th, 2001. The overwhelming majority of Muslims and Arabs (which are not synonymous categories, by the way) are hardworking people who want what is best for their families, just like us. But because of the sins of a few, every time there is some sort of security disturbance in our country, people take the opportunity to spread hate and misunderstanding about Islam and the people who practice it (and the people who look like they might practice it). And why? Because it satisfies that need for revenge that inhabits all of our hearts. By blaming a whole people and potentially making life dangerous for them, so the thinking goes, the people who were killed 14 years ago are avenged ever so slightly. It is easier and more gratifying to say “they, all of them, are the problem” than considering how we can make our world safer and more just, than asking, “what is our responsibility?” To the Torah, this desire for retribution and the violence it insights are unconscionable. They have to stop.
There is a time to address religious extremism. But this is not that time. In the case of the Umpqua shooter (may his name be forgotten), it is too easy to become distracted by speculations about his motivations, and attempts to exact vengeance against people who might resemble him even slightly. Handwringing and name-calling are easy, but they cannot prevent the next attack. If we really want to make our world safer, we must set aside vengeance to do the hard and unsatisfying work of affirming justice and understanding.