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A New American Civil War Feels Closer Than Ever After Pittsburgh

After the worst attack on Jews in American history, it's time to be afraid for the future.
Scenes like this one after the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh aren't going away.
A member of the police crosses the street on October 28, 2018 outside the Tree of Life Synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Here’s what you won’t read in the all-too-routine coverage we’re seeing of the latest mass outbreak of hate: The Pittsburgh gunman who killed 11 people at a temple Saturday, like the Trump-crazed mail bomber he’s knocked out of the headlines, may have been firing in the run-up to the next American civil war. This isn’t a war with formal sides, declarations, border skirmishes, and a win/loss score—at least, not yet. But this contest—over what it means to be an American, a fissure that may yet break into the open—has been simmering for some time. And for so many reasons (one of them, surely, the intergenerational dread that my great-grandparents and grandparents brought over when fleeing Europe’s pogroms at the end of the 19th century), this synagogue shooting fills me with a desperate desire to flee. It flashes me back to the casual anti-Semitism of my childhood classmates and Girl Scout leaders, to the plague of adolescent nightmares in which I was chased and captured by Nazis. It has me calling my Canadian friends, inquiring about their guest rooms.


Yes, it’s irrational. No one is coming to round me up today, or—probably—tomorrow. But was the Pittsburgh gunman rational?

There's a familiar script we know is coming as soon as we see headlines about another mass shooting—this time at a synagogue, by a loner festering with rage and resentment and infected with anti-Semitism that’s been inflamed by right-wing attacks on George Soros and the dreaded, horned figure of Shylock the globalist financier. Since this one was at a house of worship, like the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin in 2012, the racist Emanuel AME church massacre in Charleston in 2015, and the First Baptist Church shooting in Texas in 2017, other faith congregations will donate generously, overwhelmingly moved to bear witness that their God loves all human beings. Flags will fly at half-mast and law enforcement officials have promised, of course, to sternly and vigorously prosecute this hate crime to the fullest extent of the law.

Public officials have and will continue to condemn such an irrational, un-American (or is it uber-American?) outrage, offering up thoughts and prayers like incense on the altar of hypocrisy. People have and will continue to hold mass candlelight vigils across the country, while others will undoubtedly find a way—as they have after virtually every mass shooting since Sandy Hook—to argue the shooting was faked to swing political sentiment (in this case, toward the Democrats).


After all, if you can believe parents took money from George Soros to fake their own children's murder for political gain, how can you fail to believe the same of Jews themselves?

Meanwhile, familiar political discussions have already begun to populate the editorial pages. Op-eds will bloom with arguments about gun rights and gun regulation, since, on the one hand, hateful lunatics can’t commit mass slaughter as easily with knives as they can with AR-15s—and, on the other, only a good guy with a gun can hold off what the NRA calls anarchy and carnage. The media will launch sober and serious examinations of the spikes in hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents—can you say “tiki torches?”—over the past several years, which others will call “fake news” designed to undermine a democratically elected president.

And with renewed attention on Gab, another “free speech” (the new code for hate speech) platform, we’ll learn again how hatred festers like a deadly infection inside the body politic, and hear more about how for-profit algorithms are encapsulating Americans in feedback loops of the most extreme versions of their points of view. And of course we will also hear that our president, Donald Trump, mouths the right words about no-room-for-hateful-violence before he again promotes division and hatred, flogging his Make-America-White-Again slogan that invites previously hidden white nationalism to scurry into the full light of day.


It’s not enough.

All of these are symptoms—symptoms, certainly, that have gotten much, much more visible since November 2016. But the underlying problem is that we are a nation profoundly divided about what it means to be American. The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer suggested, in Anna Holmes’ documentary The Loving Generation, that the US has long been pledging allegiance to two very different visions of what it means to be an American. On one side, being an “American” involves signing up for a civic faith dedicated to the Constitution, to the rule of law, to the privacy of the voting booth and liberty and justice for all. This is the Americanness of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, of the pulsing urban coastal centers, a vision that’s open to your tired, your poor, your refugees from around the world yearning to be free and ready to work hard. On the other hand are those who believe that “American” means people whose parents were born here, who are white and Christian, who want to bar the doors against the swarthy hordes. And yes, at least some of the latter—like this weekend’s gunman—believe in the more sinister slogan that arbeit macht frei.

The US government has been teetering back and forth between these two visions for generations. And no matter which side occupies the White House, the other wants their country back. One side was happy with George W. Bush’s red meat, red state presidency, invading freedom-hating nations, torturing suspected enemies to show strength, and keeping the country secure with a sprawling (and enduring) “security” apparatus. The other side—the globalists, the diversity-lovers, the cosmopolitans, the blue-coastal urbanites—thought that by electing Barack Obama, they had won back their country. Now, if they didn’t before, these people know that boiling underneath Obama’s presidency was a furious resistance: the Tea Party, the racists, the white nationalists who then elected their Birther-in-Chief.


Even if November 6 brings a Democratic wave that puts ever more women, people of color, and progressives into the House of Representatives, the countervailing red tide that rules so many of the less-populous states will almost surely keep the Senate Republican. Whether Trump or a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, the losing side will be outraged that their sensible, moral, “real” America is again in exile while the US is being led by a dangerous demagogue from the other—false —vision of their country.

Jews and blacks and Sikhs and queers and immigrants and Democrats generally are on one side of this ideological war. The other side—the white-Christian-identity-politics side—is heavily armed. By that I don’t just mean with personal weapons; I mean that they tend to be the ones serving in the US military or associated with militia groups. And I fear we are heading for a civil war.

Of course, the US has veered toward terrible social rupture in the past without spilling over the cliff into open, nation-dividing violence. The early decades of the 20th century roiled with extreme inequality and hunger, protests, strikes, police violence, anarchist bombings, and fear of civil war—until FDR’s New Deal and the shared national sacrifice of World War II briefly brought Americans together. Then the McCarthyite, security-minded, conformist 1950s yielded to the 1960s and 1970s, another bloody era of social unrest, assassinations, political bombings, riots, and police violence against civilians who were black and white and female and gay and hippies.


Perhaps we are overdue for today’s turbulence and hatred between irreconcilable visions of America. Perhaps this is just an interlude of insanity that will be eased somehow, in a way we cannot yet imagine.

Or maybe the past several years’ open eruptions of racist and anti-Semitic and organized anti-immigrant violence—now government-sponsored, military-enforced, with immigrants literally being marched into illegal camps—are signs that we are a nation heading again toward open and protracted battle. Maybe when unhinged people commit (or try to commit) violence based on the conviction that the “other” side is evil, these are the early outbreaks of the war that will erupt once climate change begins claiming the coasts and burning the interior.

I hope I’m being oversensitive. But when people in a progressive, social-justice, immigrant-loving synagogue—a shul like my own—are slaughtered for allegedly polluting white America, of course my mind drifts toward who did and who did not flee Europe in time to escape the Holocaust. And while I dislike victim politics—I believe in the politics of making change—I am Jewish, and queer, and a journalist, and the parent of a young man of color, all facts that will bring out the trolls. And I am afraid.

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