The wolves of hate are loose

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY MELISSA FAY GREENE Melissa Fay Greene is the author of “The Tem­ple Bomb­ing,” about the 1958 bomb­ing of the He­brew Benev­o­lent Con­gre­ga­tion in At­lanta, and other books.

“At ex­actly fif­teen min­utes past eight in the morn­ing, on Au­gust 6, 1945, Ja­panese time, at the mo­ment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the per­son­nel depart­ment of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant of­fice and was turn­ing her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.” So be­gins John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” re­veal­ing how a sud­den strobe light of un­think­able vi­o­lence il­lu­mi­nates and freezes for all time the ev­ery­day mo­tions of peo­ple caught in the glare.

Al­though there’s no com­par­i­son in scale, I thought of Hersey’s book as the news of the Tree of Life syn­a­gogue mas­sacre broke over us, wave af­ter wave of ever-more-spe­cific de­tails. The ac­cu­mu­lat­ing minu­tiae did not paint grander and more cin­e­matic im­ages of the events; quite the op­po­site — they brought into fo­cus scenes ever more mod­est and homely: some­one waited just in­side the shul door to hand out prayer books to ar­riv­ing wor­shipers; a small ta­ble stood ready with wine cups for the cel­e­bra­tion of a bris; peo­ple looked for­ward to hav­ing a bite to eat to­gether at a kid­dush lun­cheon of chal­lah, cheese, tuna salad and cookies. The emerg­ing par­tic­u­lars gave us, among oth­ers, a re­tired ac­coun­tant who loved the Pi­rates, a long-mar­ried el­derly cou­ple, a pair of de­vel­op­men­tally de­layed mid­dle-aged broth­ers, a sprightly lit­tle lady clos­ing in on her 100th birth­day, and a 71-year-old man whose 1-year-old grand­son was “the love of his life.” The so­cial hall was men­tioned. A stor­age room played a role.

The Jewish peo­ple know from so­cial halls. I spent more of my child­hood syn­a­gogue hours in the noisy base­ment linoleum-floored so­cial hall un­der flu­o­res­cent lights than in the softly lit, car­peted sanc­tu­ary up­stairs. The Purim car­ni­val, the Hanukkah play, the bar mitz­vah par­ties, the Shab­bat lun­cheons of egg salad and rye bread and her­ring on pa­per plates at fold­ing ta­bles, with the kitchen in back and the mimeo­graph ma­chine on a rolling cart in an ad­ja­cent stor­age closet. Syn­a­gogues, churches and mosques must all have these clos­ets — win­dow­less, nar­row and tall, and lined with metal shelves up to the ceil­ing con­tain­ing enough reams of pa­per in many col­ors for a decade’s worth of brochures.

Con­gre­gants were slaugh­tered in the so­cial hall. Three of the Pitts­burgh sur­vivors hid out in the stor­age closet, while an el­derly fourth also shel­ter­ing in there — per­haps con­fused — opened the door too soon and was mur­dered.

Even be­fore the names of the vic­tims were re­leased — the number of dead click­ing up­ward as hours passed — we knew who they would be. The first ar­rivals for Shab­bat ser­vices tend to be the mid­dle-aged and the el­derly; at that hour, younger house­holds are still cor­ralling the children, try­ing to find the other shoe or the match­ing sock. The early birds tend to be the shom­rim, the guardians of the con­gre­ga­tion, the folks who — thanks to a long-ago yeshiva ed­u­ca­tion — lead the morn­ing ser­vice. As the ter­ri­ble list of the dead was re­leased, our hunch was proved cor­rect: The early-ar­riv­ing reg­u­lars had been mowed down. “The heart of our con­gre­ga­tion,” said a fel­low mem­ber. “They are the peo­ple who con­ducted our ser­vices, they did To­rah read­ings, they man­aged the bimah.”

John Banville, in “Time Pieces: A Dublin Mem­oir,” writes charm­ingly of his child­hood: “Cer­tain mo­ments in cer­tain places, ap­par­ently in­signif­i­cant, im­print them­selves on the mem­ory with im­prob­a­ble vivid­ness and clar­ity.” His words re­turned to me last week, be­cause it was pre­cisely the “ap­par­ently in­signif­i­cant” mo­ments of an av­er­age Satur­day morn­ing in an av­er­age neigh­bor­hood in an av­er­age city that were ir­ra­di­ated by the klieg light of a ter­ror­ist at­tack. Was Joyce Fien­berg wear­ing her dou­blestrand of pearls that morn­ing, or had she gone with the gold chain? Was Rose Mallinger plan­ning to go out to lunch with her daugh­ter af­ter ser­vices? Some “ap­par­ently in­signif­i­cant” mo­ments proved life­sav­ing for the folks run­ning a bit later than usual, still walk­ing to­ward Tree of Life when strangers in pass­ing cars, rec­og­niz­ing them as Jews, warned them to turn back to safety.

The wires had been crack­ling with warn­ings, the In­ter­net siz­zling with threats — against Jews and Mus­lims, African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos, gays and trans peo­ple, and any­one stand­ing in sol­i­dar­ity or friend­ship with them. You can avoid the so­cial me­dia sites where the worst and most il­lit­er­ate big­ots type out the most vul­gar of their thoughts and post the vilest of their imag­in­ings; but you don’t have to click on Gab to know about these peo­ple, rub­bing to­gether the sticks of ig­no­rance and gulli­bil­ity and ha­tred, seek­ing ig­ni­tion.

Sixty years and three weeks ago, the Tem­ple in At­lanta was bombed by an­tiSemitic white su­prem­a­cists who per­ceived the Jews as “mas­ter­mind­ing” the civil rights move­ment — not un­like ac­cused killer Robert Bow­ers ac­cept­ing the widely broad­cast the­ory that Jews con­ceived and bankrolled the mi­grant car­a­van. The day af­ter the Tem­ple bomb­ing, Ralph McGill, edi­tor of the At­lanta Con­sti­tu­tion, pub­lished an ed­i­to­rial at­tack­ing South­ern elected of­fi­cials who con­jured up scape­goats and stirred up the mobs for their own po­lit­i­cal gains. “It is not pos­si­ble to preach law­less­ness and re­strict it,” he wrote. “You do not preach and en­cour­age ha­tred for the Ne­gro and hope to re­strict it to that field. It is an old, old story. It is one re­peated over and over again in his­tory. When the wolves of hate are loosed on one peo­ple, then no one is safe.”

When I wrote a book about the Tem­ple bomb­ing, I fell in love with that phrase, “the wolves of hate are loosed.” Yet since the Tree of Life killings, it’s some­how the sec­ond half of McGill’s sen­tence that mod­estly shows it­self to me as the more im­por­tant: “no one is safe.” It turns out that, when vi­o­lence shat­ters the lives of in­no­cents, the re­sults are less likely to be epic and re­quir­ing of metaphor than to be com­posed of “ap­par­ently in­signif­i­cant” mo­ments. Those de­tails be­come all the more pre­cious to us be­cause of how typ­i­cal and homely they are, be­cause they de­scribe our very own lives, down to the satin yarmulkes in shiny col­ors, the tiny plas­tic cups sit­ting be­side a wine bot­tle on the tar­nished tray.

When hate speech, fir­ing up the air­waves and pop­ping at the ral­lies, sud­denly tears apart — with home­made bombs or as­sault ri­fles — the ev­ery­day lives of or­di­nary peo­ple, the re­sults are not cin­e­matic or larger-than-life. The re­sults are ex­actly life-size. Even a re­tired ac­coun­tant stand­ing in a stor­age closet may be mur­dered; even soft-spo­ken folks whose beloved dog is home wait­ing for its lunch may be de­stroyed. A clerk in the per­son­nel depart­ment turns her face to­ward her friend at the mo­ment the atomic bomb oblit­er­ates the Hiroshima sky. A bowtie-wear­ing doc­tor, hav­ing sliced and ar­ranged the bagels in a syn­a­gogue kitchen in Pitts­burgh, hears strange noises and hur­ries through a door­way to see if some­one needs help when his life ends in a blast of ha­tred and gun­fire.

GENE J. PUSKAR/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A makeshift me­mo­rial out­side Pitts­burgh’s Tree of Life syn­a­gogue for the 11 peo­ple killed there on Oct. 27.

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