Ari Mahler’s Challenge: Pittsburgh, Caravans, And The Revolution Of The Neighbor

The wisdom of the Talmud: when the Romans sacked the Temple of Jerusalem seventy years after the birth of Christ, when the Jews were forced into slavery and subjugation across a vast empire, when their God did nothing to prevent the destruction of his Chosen People, the Rabbi Ishmael, coy and calm, suggested that the Scriptural exaltation “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” should be replaced by the genuine query, “Who is like you, O Lord, among the mute?”  In Hebrew, Ishmael made a pun – elim, for gods, rhymes with ilmim, for mute.

Therein lies the central unique courage of Judaism, the western world’s oldest faith.  Two thousand years ago, the Jews were already far enough removed from their holiest texts to recognize the absurdity of holiness itself.  The chaos and suffering of this life, and the meaninglessness of a life after death, make it clear that God, if He exists, is either sadistic or completely impotent.  Jewish culture has for centuries defined itself by its tender irreverence toward the God it serves, encapsulated in the grand tradition of Jewish Humor – a customer says to a tailor “It’s taken you six weeks to make my pants, don’t you know God made the world in just seven days?”; the tailor replies, “Ah yes, my friend, but look at how nice these pants are, and look at the state of the world!”  But this mockery does not in any way trivialize the covenant between mankind and the Divine.  Anybody familiar with Jews and Jewish culture knows that many Jews who openly deny the existence of God still keep strict kosher, still observe Shabbat, still live their lives in proud accordance with the Commandments given to Moses.

Christian philosophy holds central the myth that God manifested Himself in the human flesh, that He stood before his followers and instructed them to “Love thy neighbor” and “Do unto others,” that he offered them the possibility of forgiveness, that he promised to those who were righteous and/or forgiven an eternal life after death, and to those who were not an eternal damnation.  For Jews, there is no carrot and no stick; there is no Jewish God in human form, and there is no Jewish doctrine of afterlife.  This inverts the popular imaginary of our civilization, built on the genocidal expansion of Christian empires, in which to be “Christian” is to be selfless, and to be “Jewish” is self-interested.  In fact, the Christian true believer who does the right thing does so because they expect an otherworldly punishment or reward; the Jew, on the other hand, must do right simply for rightness’s sake.

This brings us to Ari Mahler, a Jewish nurse from Pittsburgh who was faced with a test of righteousness worthy of the Book of Job.  On October 27, when Robert Bowers burst into the Tree of Life Synagogue and began murdering worshippers with an AR-15 assault rifle, Mahler felt what he later described as “panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his eleven victims.”  Less than an hour later, Bowers, who had been shot by police, was brought to the Alleghany general hospital, and Mahler was among three Jewish medical workers who treated his injuries.

In a widely shared Facebook post, Mahler wrote, “I’ve watched them talk about me on CNN, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, PBS, and the local news stations.  I’ve read articles mentioning me in the NY Times and the Washington Post.  The fact that I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything, is newsworthy to people because I’m Jewish.”  He describes his own personal experience of anti-Semitic bullying as a child, when classmates would leave him notes saying “Die Jew.  Love, Hitler” – certainly, of all people, Ari Mahler would have cause to hate Robert Bowers, or at least not to save his life.  Yet the intricate compassion in his account of an interaction with a mass murderer who had so recently threatened the lives of his loved ones is truly staggering: “To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes.  All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion.  Robert Bowers probably had no friends, was easily influenced by propaganda, and wanted attention on a sociopathic level.  He’s the kind of person that is easily manipulated by people with a microphone, a platform, [who] use fear for motivation.  I can’t go into the details of our interactions because of HIPPA, but Robert Bowers thanked me for saving him, for showing him kindness, and for treating him the same way I treat every other patient.”

Even Bowers, who was wheeled into the hospital still screaming anti-Semitic slurs, who was capable of gunning down eleven human beings, who even as he surrendered to police told a SWAT officer he wanted all Jews to die for committing a genocide against the white race, was capable of gratitude.  Even Bowers sought to be treated “the same way” as each of Mahler’s patients, with love and compassion.  The desire to be loved and cared for is at once a spiritual desire and a universal condition that unites every human being, even those capable of the most unfathomable inhumanity.  Bowers did not know that Mahler was Jewish, that if Mahler had been at the synagogue that Shabbat he could have been murdered; for Bowers to give Mahler thanks was the basic response of a human receiving another human’s kindness.  But Mahler did know that Bowers had begun his attack with the cry, “All Jews must die!” which by definition includes Mahler himself; that Mahler still offered Bowers the compassion that every human being desires speaks to a heroic ability to place himself in the position of even the most implausibly deranged subject, a recognition of shared humanity that requires seeing oneself simultaneously as the healer and the terrorist seeking healing.  This is existential courage.

Jesus Christ told his followers that “all the law and the prophets” are contingent on two principles: first, love of God, and second, the essential commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  This principle, found in every ethical framework and colloquialized as the Golden Rule, lends meaning to an existence which is in many ways empty and absurd: I, a thinking subject, recognize myself in you, another thinking subject, and the intersection of our subjectivity establishes the universe to be a real constant – rather than the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), a tautology, we can confidently say scio cogitas, ergo sumus (I know you think, therefore we are).  It is in this spirit that Alain Badiou argues that “the whole ethical predication based on recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned.  For the real question – and it is an extraordinarily difficult one – is much more that of recognizing the Same.”  Ari Mahler understood the moral weight of his actions, writing, “Love.  That’s why I did it…Love in the face of evil gives others hope.  It demonstrates humanity.  It reaffirms why we’re all here.”  By redefining the word unconditional in his empathy, he radically asserts that there is meaning itself – ironically, while his love would be considered “Christian,” it embarks on the essential Jewish task of creating truth in a world abandoned by God.

Meanwhile, in the face of Mahler’s Christ-like courage and love, America’s self-ordained Christian leadership has demonstrated a boundless cowardice, cynicism, and self-interest since the Pittsburg shooting that betrays a socio-political core of profound and appalling spiritual bankruptcy.  When first asked about the attack, Donald Trump, the surprise darling of Evangelicals nationwide, launched into a bizarre monologue that, characteristically, defies transcription: “[The shooting] has little to do with it [presumably guns], if you take a look, if they had protection inside, the results would have been far better.  This is a dispute that will always exist, I suspect, but if they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it could have been a very much different situation, but they didn’t.  I think one thing we should do is we should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty, when people do this, they should get the death penalty, and they shouldn’t have to wait years and years, now the lawyers will get involved…”

While Mahler was heaving through grief and trauma to recognize the human life worth saving, the universal dignity worth redeeming in a situation of utter horror, the President and his target audience could only make sense of meaningless violence and inhumanity through more meaningless violence and inhumanity.  It should go without saying that Trump’s proposed solutions would not prevent events like the Pittsburgh massacre.  Armed guards in a synagogue would only start shooting once the attacker opened fire with his immensely powerful assault rifle, and would most likely leave the worshippers stranded in the crossfire.  And the threat of the death penalty would be meaningless for the killers, alienated beyond suicidality, who typically carry out these events expecting to be “martyred” by the police responders.  But these points should not matter – more disturbing than the blatant wrongness of Trump and so-called “Christian” conservatives’ political positions is the centrality of cowardice in their worldview: an existential fear of the neighbor, and a willingness to do any kind of harm to keep that neighbor away rather than embrace even the potentially harmful Other as a potential reflection of the Self.

Reasonable observers have already pointed out how Trump’s cowardly rhetoric pushed the Pittsburgh shooter into action.  Like much of the newly resurgent militant far-right, Bowers referenced his sympathy to Trump’s worldview in social media, with posts like “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” Less than a week before the shooting, and immediately after the President and Fox News began using the term “invaders” to refer to a caravan of Central American migrants, Bowers posted, “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders.’  I like this.”  Just hours before his attack, Bowers posted, “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people.  I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.  Screw your optics, I’m going in.”  He chose the Tree of Life as a target because the synagogue is affiliated with the refugee resettlement program HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which, per alt-right mythology, is a front used by Jewish billionaire George Soros to “replace” the white majority in the United States with Muslim and Latino immigrants.  This theory is tacitly endorsed by the President, who, even after the shooting, said that “I wouldn’t be surprised” if Soros was funding the infamous Central American caravan.

It should be noted that Bowers’s attack is not the only act of racial terrorism triggered by the President’s explicitly fascist rhetoric in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections.  Just days before the Pittsburgh shooting, a man named Gregory Alan Jones tried to break into a black church outside of Louisville, Kentucky – after failing, he shot two black women in a grocery store and told a witness that “whites don’t kill whites.”  A week after Pittsburgh, a veteran and self-described “incel” (involuntary celibate) named Scott Paul Beirele attacked a yoga studio in Tallahassee, killing two others and then himself, in an attack specifically aimed to target women.  More prominently but less destructively, a Trump supporter named Cesar Sayoc sent explosives to many of Trump’s political opponents, including Soros, but the bombs did not go off.

In a society built on myths of meritocracy and competition, the subconscious drive to “fear thy neighbor” is an existential force – fear of competition with your neighbor for sparse comforts, fear of violence from your neighbor whose life is defined by violence from you – which clashes constantly with the existential orientation of meaning, “thy neighbor as thyself.”  Any conservative politics, that is, any politics designed to limit the expression of freedom and solidarity, requires “fear thy neighbor” to win out.  For Trump and his swamp of military rogues and billionaire elites to secure popular support for their government without offering the sort of egalitarian, democratizing policies that resonate with “love thy neighbor,” they must establish a hegemony of “fear thy neighbor.”  Counting on a voting majority of white Americans captivated by a wave of threatening Others (racial minorities spoiling a shining picket-fence imaginary, feminists and queers undermining the rule of the Father, and of course immigrants with their fictional drugs, crime, and rape), the President and his mouthpieces do little more than promote preposterous xenophobic conspiracy theories.  The fact that these theories lead some lonely, unstable, and heavily armed men to do unimaginably horrible things should surprise nobody.

But the profound anti-humanity that the political right hides behind operates two levels worthy of discussion.  On the one hand, the lies they tell are irredeemable and poised to inflict vastly more harm than lone white supremacist gunmen.  Slavoj Žižek divides violence into the interactive categories of subjective (“violence performed by a clearly identifiable agent” which seems irrational and disturbing) and objective (violence of impersonal systems, which is largely unnoticed).  Bowers shooting eleven Jews for their perceived role in welcoming Latin American “invaders” pales in comparison to the very real possibility of US troops gunning down a caravan of refugees at the border.  Both parrot the colonialist, white supremacist logic of the state apparatuses predating Trump.  The refugees currently traveling through Mexico are fleeing US-imposed regimes of corruption and terror in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – as recently as 2009, President Obama supported a military coup in which the democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was kidnapped for rejecting pro-US policies.  The idea that Latinos are invading the United States is the ideological spawn of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus: that Latin American countries are uncivilized and require subjugation under conservative, pro-US regimes.  These ideological masks for the extraction of capital from Latin America are interchangeable for the ruling powers – as Trump sent troops to the border, National Security Advisor John Bolton announced a “troika of tyranny” consisting of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, further entangling the strands of racial animus, fear-mongering at home, and potential invasions and extractive capitalism abroad into a soup of atrocities that condenses its logic in outbursts like that at the Tree of Life.

On the other hand, however, we must recognize that the utter fantasies spread by those in positions of power, and especially the fine-tuned image of Trump as nostalgic, racist, überdaddy (a perfect example of what Walter Benjamin described as fascism’s “introduction of aesthetics into political life”) resonate with an electoral base because the logic behind them is understood to be true.  The liberal mainstream is rightly outraged with Trump’s claim that tough immigration enforcement will prevent a wave of “drugs, crime, and rapists” from Mexico because that claim is false, but nobody disputes the logic behind such a statement; liberals would agree that if drugs, crime, and rapists were coming from Mexico, the solution could be tough immigration standards, the problem with Trump’s statement is only the fact that drugs, crime, and rapists aren’t coming.  Similarly, liberals are outraged with the idea of armed guards in churches and schools because they would not prevent mass shootings; if we had evidence that armed guards would stop mass shootings, no liberal would object.  The invasion Iraq was wrong because it was based on false claims that the country was creating mass destruction; if Saddam actually had WMDs, it would have been right.

The problem with this moral framing is that it relies entirely on transient facts.  The public has no appetite for facts, and for good reason – for generations, both liberal and conservative wings of the media have lied or obscured the basic realities of context; outside of highly exclusive and class-stratified academic institutions, people rarely have access to data beyond their personal experience.  The task of Trump and his propaganda network is simple: convince enough of the people of one inaccurate fact that they have no means of personally verifying.  Because they are convinced that Mexicans bring with them drugs, crime, and rape, it seems logical that Fox News viewers would want to block them from the country at all costs.  Because they hear exaggerated reports of gun owners preventing mass shootings, it makes sense that rural Americans would oppose gun-free zones.  Because they were told Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction, there was a time when most Americans in either party believed the War in Iraq was a necessary evil.

Factual truth, to quote Hannah Arendt, is “political by nature.”  It emerges in the mind of its subject from social maneuverings, from economic conditions, from personal baggage, from the skillful manipulations of the cynical few who helm the ideological ships of state.  Factual truth is excruciatingly vulnerable to fake news, to charismatic intervention, to the gloss of aesthetic.  And here those who oppose power find themselves at a permanent disadvantage – the rich and ruling classes will always, always, have the means to produce better fake news, to find more charismatic leaders, to shine a more complete aesthetic, than the solidarity-minded underclass.

But, fortunately, there are forces more powerful than factual truth: the vast majority of a human being’s decisions are not the result of data measured up on hanging scales, but the result of concrete, long-settled principles.  The Left has apparently abdicated the world of sweeping humanist moral arguments to the Christian right, to our detriment.  If we wish to overcome the weight of fascism that clearly lies just around the corner, we can not engage with it on fascism’s terms, determining questions of life and death by debating semantics with opponents who are committed to brutalizing reality for their own momentary gain.  We must instead make the project of the Left redefining our reality in terms that recognize, without exception, the Sameness in the Other.

Here I return to the challenge Ari Mahler poses to every one of us.  Mahler, who believed that in saving a man who would want him dead, he was just doing his job.  Mahler, who said of a man who personifies the irredeemable hatred of a civilization, “I wanted him to feel compassion.  I chose to show him empathy.”  If Ari Mahler can offer empathy, can look for the Sameness, in the eyes of Robert Bowers, what right do any of us have not to do the same in any and every circumstance?  It is in Ari Mahler’s image, the image promised by Christ and his Golden Rule, and given heroic meaning by Judaism’s God among the mute, that we must reshape our worldview.

Trump’s absurd claims of “drugs, crime, and rapists,” of ISIS terrorists having infiltrated the refugee caravan, are dirty and transparent lies.  But rather than debate these erroneous claims, we must respond, so what if they are true?  A terrorist is a lost neighbor, a wounded reflection of the self, a human being who like every human being seeks compassion.  We must be vigilant, we must prevent harm where it can be prevented, at times we must fight and even destroy the neighbor who promises more destruction (Brecht’s paradox; “Alas, we who wished to lay the foundations of kindness could not ourselves be kind”); I have no doubt that any survivable future society will be achieved only through Walter Benjamin’s “Divine Violence” of revolution.  But far more importantly we must stand by the courage of our convictions.  There is no circumstance under which it is acceptable to answer the neighbor, who is suffering, by saying, “No, I will not do what I can to ease your suffering.”  The terrorist on the hospital bed, the refugee in the caravan, even the fascist who has been dethroned – our revolution, and in fact our existence itself, becomes meaningless if we can not search for our own humanity even within them.

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