The Pretext

The United States is experiencing paroxysms of violence that seem to erupt every now and then, oddly enough (perhaps not?) in years that feature contested elections. Think about the riots of 1968, 1992, 2016 and the current explosions and it is hard not to conclude that there is some connection – even though it has generally led to Republican victories that could not have cheered the rioters.

Nonetheless, it should be possible to denounce the despicable murder of George Floyd and its use as a pretext for the contemptible violence that resulted. Unfortunately, I tend to take a more lawyerly view of these proceedings after the visceral horror of the crime itself recedes. There is much that remains to be clarified: the look on the officer’s face while murdering another human being in cold blood was itself shocking. He was too calm, too detached, a sign of a sadistic psychopath – or what? Did he have a history of violence in his dealings with his arrestees, black or white? Surely this wasn’t the first black he arrested, and some for more serious crimes than in the instant case, but he didn’t murder any of them. I haven’t seen or heard a shred of evidence that the man was indeed a racist (he probably is, but nothing has surfaced to date – no internet posts, no attendance at KKK rallies, etc.). The modern narrative, though, is that any crime or even untoward act by a white to a black must have a racist origin. That is obviously the result of the identity politics game so popular today – you are not an individual but part of a group – but the narrative goes unquestioned. It could be that some racist motivation will emerge (or some other vicious rationale unrelated to racism) but worse than a white killing a black is just that a human being killed another human being.

That basic truth never seems to enter the equation. Thus, this past weekend saw 18 blacks murdered in Chicago by other blacks, and 16 more murdered the week before. That strangely evokes no outrage. Three years ago in Minneapolis a black police officer shot and killed a white woman. Race played no role in the evaluation of the case, which, of course, had it been the reverse,  would have resulted in swift and relentless rage. That, annually, whites in America are shot and killed by police twice as often as are blacks is also ignored, so more is afoot than this one brutal, inexplicable and evil act.

As strange as it sounds given the crime, the system actually works. No one has attempted to defend or rationalize the former police officer’s heinous crime. There has been no blue wall of silence; instead, there has been wall-to-wall and coast-to-coast condemnation on every side of the political spectrum.  He was charged with homicide, is being held in prison in lieu of bail, will be tried, likely convicted, sentenced to the maximum, probably not executed but effectively receive a life sentence because he will never be paroled. And that is how it should be.

So how do we get from there to this – in (Democrat-controlled) city after city in America, protests, demonstrations, rioting, looting, violence, mayhem and anarchy? Note that just last week, a synagogue in Cote-St.-Luc was vandalized, with the premises ravaged and Torah scrolls strewn about.  Canadian Jews in response did not torch downtown Montreal. So too, in the wake of the dreadful attacks on Jews in the metropolitan area in the last year, we didn’t go and raid Nordstrom. In the last month, there have been numerous demonstrations against the draconian lockdown rules that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people. The protesters were very angry – but there was not one instance in which they burglarized and looted the stores in which they wanted to shop.

These spasms of carnage always explode because of perceived racism, and they are more frequent in America because of the dearth of pushback, the fecklessness of the political class, and most importantly, the absence of values education. To condemn the murder and not condemn the rioting, as some moral poseurs have done, is virtue-signaling of the most hypocritical kind. To date, more people have been killed as a result of the rioting than the one unfortunate victim of police brutality in Minneapolis; that should be receiving more attention.

The virtue-signaling is particularly odious because the remedy proffered is an impossibility. To say that racism should not exist is like saying Jew hatred should not exist or nay other hatred, for that matter; it is true but not particularly helpful. Hatred is part of the human condition and has existed since the dawn of creation and will endure until the Messianic era. Calling for utopia is an empty gesture. We could all live quite well with what lurks in man’s heart as long as it is not acted upon. Actions matter.

The real question is not whether hatred exists but how we deal with it. Some ways are admirable: self-defense in the face of violence or understanding the root causes of the anger that resides in people, even in small groups of people, because dialogue does allow a healthy form of venting and can even lead to reconciliation and harmony.

What is especially perverse and loathsome is responding to unjustified violence with more unjustified violence. It is also pathetic and wins rioters no sympathy.  The violent lawless act of a rogue cop should not inspire violent lawlessness on the part of others. To give a pass to any individual or group  for committing mayhem is not the soft bigotry of low expectations; it is the hard core bigotry of no expectations. Marauding mobs do not inspire understanding or good will and make no one more kindly disposed to their “cause.” In fact, the opposite is true. The riots tend to reinforce the negative and harmful stereotypes that we are all trying to eradicate. Those who think their lives matter should act like their lives matter, and then they will matter. Jews have a long and lugubrious history of being murdered in cold blood but never have we sought to avenge those murders by killing or injuring or looting the property of innocent third parties. That injustice too cries out to the heavens.

How do seemingly normal people allow themselves to descend into such depravity? The Torah is instructive here as on all matters. The Sages taught us (Sotah 2a) that the portions describing the treatment of the Sotah (the straying wife) and the Nazir (who embraces additional restrictions) are juxtaposed to remind us that “whoever sees the Sotah in her degradation should abstain from wine.”

What is the connection? It is that a person who is so drawn to the spectacle of the Sotah that he goes to the Temple to watch it is already in a weakened spiritual state. His moral safeguards begin to fray as the crime of the Sotah, to him, seems less horrific and within the realm of the possible. And others join him too – and then all moral restraints are abandoned. Such a person has to regain his equilibrium by abstaining from wine that furthers clouds his conscience.

A normal individual will rarely do things while alone that he would do acting in concert with a supportive, protective group. The group – the mob – affords rationalizations and psychological safety that one does not have unaccompanied by others. That is why a German scientist, teacher, bureaucrat, lawyer or musician one day could become a murderous, malicious, ferocious Nazi the next. The group dynamic tends to dull our inhibitions. Hence the rioters, breaking into and ransacking Macy’s, Gucci, Microsoft and other fine stores. They weren’t seeking milk and bread. Their animalistic passions – what the Sages called the “nefesh habehami” that inheres in all of us – were unleashed. They are quelled in the short term when their energies dissipate (or the merchandise is gone) and in the long term only by teaching values, preaching to people that there is a divine moral code that constrains all of us, and that there is justice in the world – justice that is achievable but never through  torrents of injustice.

Apropos of the one who views the Sotah ordeal, all those who watched the cruel and evil murder of George Floyd cannot help but be diminished by it as human beings. It impairs our basic humanity. Those painful images will be difficult to uproot. But we respond to it by trying to become more human and more civilized, not less so.

The silver lining in this catastrophe is that the riots have driven the grim Corona virus from the news. Social distancing is a concern for fifteen people who want to daven together, not for several thousand people who want to protest and riot. Last week you could get arrested for opening a store; now you can’t get arrested for looting one.

This is how crazy the race wars have become. In California a “peaceful” young white protester smashed the windows of a vehicle that, unbeknownst to him, belonged to J.R. Smith, the black basketball player and former Knick. Smith chased down the perpetrator and beat the living daylights out of him. So: a white man protesting the death of a black man by demolishing the vehicle of a black man is then assaulted by the black man who is rightfully cheered for his efforts. Only in America.

This will end, until it starts again, but it will never really end. The nefesh habehami, once unleashed, is difficult to control.

It is going to be a long hot summer if cooler heads don’t prevail. The questions are: can America’s decline be reversed? And how?

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