By David G. Wang
Just half a week after the domestic terrorist attack at Chabad of Poway, I received a text from my brother. As a first-year student at Columbia University engulfed in final exams, I found his “how are you?” particularly refreshing. Diverting momentarily from our banter on family and classes, with the synagogue shooting lingering on my mind, I tacked on “And how is San Diego?” to the end of our messages. Buried beneath my brother’s anxieties about Advanced Placement exams and high-school course selection were four words — his reply — that made me scoff: “San Diego is reeling.”
My laughter about a subject so somber surprised and stung me. Yet, upon further introspection, I realize that the spontaneous, scornful sounds that had slithered from my throat were not unfounded. In a Columbia dining hall just a few nights prior, I had watched as “hundreds” filled Valle Verde Park for a candlelight vigil. In San Diego County — a city of 3 million “strong” — would you not expect more to show up to memorialize its fallen, especially on a Sunday evening?
What had been my scorn became my sorrow. Despite murder and blatant anti-Semitism, my community’s outrage was tired and short-lived. Despite an inundation of “this can’t keep happening” posts on my Facebook feed, my neighbors’ activism rarely surpassed a like. Despite all-caps, sans serif headlines that plastered the CNN homepage for a few hours of April 27, sweeping action against anti-Semitism and domestic terror by my reeling community had not, has not, and will seemingly never come.
A tremendous disparity exists between how we Americans respond to foreign and domestic terrorism. For the former, our nation has spent nearly 1 trillion dollars in Afghanistan — the longest-running war in its history. For the latter, domestic mass shootings and bubbling extremism receive thoughts, prayers, and failed demonstrations alone.
One explanation for this gap is what Harvard Law School Professor Cass Sunstein calls the “Goldstein Effect.” Sunstein postulates that an identifiable perpetrator is essential to fueling outrage and spawning tangible democratic change.
While our hands pinned radical Islamic terrorism on Osama Bin Laden, to whom do our fingers point for domestic terror and anti-Semitism? No one. For this reason, these evils are especially foul. They are poisons without a distinct scent; they fly undetected until hatred becomes bullets and blood. As San Diego has proven, it takes just two weeks for us to lose their scent trail again; our inability to identify a perpetrator for the root causes of the Chabad attack is a consequential shortcoming for our city’s response.
Given this challenge, what then are we supposed to do? Another culprit for our inaction is the lack of solutions we hear. While the media swarms to cover Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for student debt relief or Donald Trump’s for a coal-powered energy revolution, no one widely covers resolutions to anti-Semitism or domestic terror.
When Fox News’ debates on these topics stream and scream through our screens, we further become conditioned to these debates’ fundamental premise: that anti-Semitism and domestic terror may be debated, that their threat may not be real. According to the canonical psychological work of Amos Tversky and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, any information made more available to us more rapidly grafts into our conscious. Therefore, these skewed messages about anti-Semitism and domestic terror distort our perception of the synagogue attack and sedate our urgency.
When texting my brother Wednesday, I probed further, “Is SD actually reeling?” He responded, “No. Honestly not really.”
While languor summarizes our present, action and activism must define our future.
In his op-ed in the New York Times, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway resurges in pride and resolve to never fear his Jewish identity and faith again.
San Diego, it is our turn to surge forth too. Although I write to call us out for our lukewarm reaction to a domestic, anti-Semitic terror attack in our home, I doubly call us in to rupture our idleness.
While there is no easily identifiable perpetrator to blame for anti-Semitism and domestic terror, let us seize responsibility to fight back anyway. While many of us have no Jewish blood, let us comfort our Jewish neighbors who lost theirs. While many of us possess no Judaic faith, let us invite others to fortify the memory of this tragedy, inspire outrage against anti-Semitism, and pursue change even if we cannot completely fathom it. Only then, will our “this can’t keep happening” become a victorious affirmation that it won’t.
— David G. Wang is a San Diego native and first-year student at Columbia University in the city of New York.