OVERLAND PARK, Kansas — I was in the car, leaving a movie theater after seeing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when a friend called to tell me that shots had been fired at the Jewish Community Center. I knew this was different from other mass shootings. I knew this was not a “random act” of violence but a targeted killing—and that my own seemingly safe community was the target. We hung up. I called my mom. She lives in Overland Park, barely a mile from where the shooting took place. My concern, of course, was for my closest friends and family. But even as mom’s phone was ringing, I realized that no one had texted me anything bad while I was in the theater, meaning that those closest to me must be OK.
Then came sadness, then anger. The anger lasted a long, long time. My mind raced. I drove from supposedly hazardous, urban Kansas City to the pretty, purported safety of suburban Overland Park. While driving, listening to the first sketchy news reports, hot tears were streaming down my face. My skin was red, mind awash in blank rage. The world looked different. The streets of Kansas City, my home—where my father and his father, and his father before him were born and raised—now looked alien to me. The faces of strangers seemed newly, weirdly hostile. And people wonder, I thought, why there has to be a Israel.
My friend Shawn called. I love Shawn: he’s a good man and close friend of my family, but at that moment, though, I didn’t want to talk to anyone who wasn’t Jewish. I was furious at the world. I sent a sad, angry, confused text message to an ex-girlfriend. “Why do they hate us so much?!? All we do is work hard and try to love our families.” It was plaintive. For a brief, rage-filed, ludicrous moment I told myself I would never date another non-Jewish girl, and that didn’t want to associate with anyone who couldn’t understand the pain of being singled out for Jewishness. That passed, of course. I want to love everyone. Yet to fade, though, is that new sense of invisible hostility in the streets I call home.
Particularly galling in the immediate aftermath of the crime was how quickly people retreated into their comfortably entrenched political positions, hiding behind the emotional safety of well-worn screeds. Within minutes, friends on Facebook and Twitter were reciting their favorite pieties about the need for better mental-health care or the “right-wingers who hate Obama” who keep the country from establishing more stringent gun laws.
It was offensive. Yes, mental illness was involved. Anyone who perpetrates such an evil is mentally ill, almost by definition. But this wasn’t some crazy kid with a head full of snakes who marched into a schoolroom. This crime didn’t happen because of some abstract failure to deal with mental illness or the proliferation of guns. This shooting was markedly different from Sandy Hook, Columbine, or any of the countless other indiscriminate acts of horror which have become part of our lives. The accused, Frazier Glenn Miller, is a longtime anti-Semite and former “grand dragon” of the Carolina Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. This evil was terrorism. To me at least, that speaks less to the need for gun control or better mental-health care in America than it does the rising tide of anti-Semitic violence around the world.
The tendency for the educated among us will be to desensitize ourselves—to deny the truth of this new Jew-hatred. We will dismiss the shooter as a demented hick from rural Missouri; the last remnant of a near-dead ideology that once held sway in American hinterlands. Far from it. All over the world, attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions are on the rise. From desecrated synagogues in Los Angeles and Ukraine, to the recent neo-Nazi rally in downtown Kansas City, to the constant stream of bloodthirsty demonizing that spews from government-controlled media in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, every sort of Jew-hating, for every sort of reason, grows ever more common.
The Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City is terribly familiar to me, as it is to most Jews in this mid-sized, Midwestern city. One summer I worked at the JCC’s swimming pool, checking membership cards. A few years later, I wrote press releases and newsletters for the communications office. The JCC is where my father went for workouts, where my cousins, uncles and friends send their kids to daycare. At best, however, I am tangentially related to this crime. I knew none of the victims. Neither, it should be noted, were any of them Jewish. Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson, 14-year-old Reat Griffin Underwood were both members of a local Methodist church. The third victim, Terri LaManno—who died in the parking lot of the nearby Village Shalom retirement center—was a practicing Catholic. It is somehow both pathetic and poignant that none of the shooting victims were Jews. Pathetic, because it demonstrates the sheer stupidity of the criminal who perpetuated this horror. Poignant because there could be no more powerful illustration of the unavoidable fact that anti-Semitism threatens us all.
Late last night, I found myself looking at the Passover Hagadah. “In every generation,” the text says, “there are those who would rise to destroy us.” This week, at seders around the world, those words will have extra resonance because they are so obviously still true. They were true before the Klan or Nazis. They are true now, even in cosmopolitan, liberal cities like London and Paris where anti-Semitism is couched in the language of Anti-Zionism. They are true even in my beloved America, in the city that both my grandfathers called home.
It was ironic that news of the shootings came my way right after seeing the new Captain America movie. In it, neo-Nazis are the villains. They say “Hail Hydra!” eerily echoing the suspect who cried “Heil Hitler!” from the back of police car. Neo-Nazis, it’s painfully obvious, are not just a Hollywood fantasy. Anti-Semites are not merely movie villains. They are real, in the Midwest as well as the Middle East, and they are after blood.