It was a bris, for God's sake.
That's the detail that sticks out in the aftermath of America's latest mass shooting, this one in Pittsburgh. Friends and family had gathered at the Tree of Life Synagogue to celebrate and welcome a new life into their community. It should've been a joyous moment, a sacred moment.
But in America these days, every sacred moment is just a second away from transforming into something profane and evil. So it happened Saturday morning in Pittsburgh: A man with a gun walked into the celebration, reportedly yelled "All Jews must die!" and pulled the trigger. A beautiful moment turned bloody. Again.
God help us all.
As of this writing, eight people are reportedly dead. And the first thought that occurs, after wiping away the increasingly familiar shock at news of another massacre, is this: America is broken.
Saturday's massacre, after all, took place during a week in which violence seemed to be seeping up from every corner. A Florida man — seemingly obsessed with President Trump — was arrested Friday, charged with sending pipe bombs to an array of Democratic leaders, as well as to CNN. Less noticed in the frenzy over the pipe bombs, but equally important: A man walked into a Kentucky grocery store on Wednesday and killed two black customers, reportedly telling one survivor: "Whites don't kill whites." And why did he choose a grocery store for his crime? Because he had been unsuccessful a few minutes before in gaining entry to a predominantly African-American church nearby.
News of the pipe-bombing attempts — as well as President Trump's recent celebration of an assault on a reporter — has produced a lot of hand-wringing among politicians and pundits. The country is on a precipice, we've been told: We're on the verge of slipping into a wave of political violence that may prove difficult to end. We must step away.
"Political violence, once unleashed, is nearly impossible to contain," I wrote Thursday. "It creates more suffering than solutions. And once the cycle starts, we don't know where it ends. We're awfully close to crossing that cultural tipping point, but we can still make better choices. It's not too late."
Two days later, all of that remains true — except for the last sentence: Maybe it is too late. Maybe we have stepped across the precipice. Maybe it's going to get worse before it gets better.
There's a danger in pondering this out loud, because maybe we aren't there just yet — maybe there's still room to avoid a disaster — and no one wants their worst fears for the country to become self-fulfilling prophecy. When will we know, then, when the line has been crossed, when the crisis has become full-blown?
We'll know when people are dying. Well: People are dying.
There are two separate-but-intertwined problems: America these days produces both an excess of outrage — on Twitter, on talk radio, and cable news — and the means, in the form of weaponry, to act on that outrage to deadly ends. The NRA says that guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's only half right: Angry people, sick people, evil people kill people — and they tend to do it with guns designed to kill a lot of people in a short time.
About the outrage: We don't know everything we need to know about this week's violence. What we do know is that killing Jews or killing African-Americans because they are Jews and African-Americans are inherently political acts. Sending bombs to political and media figures are even more obviously political acts. Were these crimes carried out by madmen, "lone wolfs" acting on their own? Perhaps. It may not matter. Sometimes it takes just one malevolent man — it's always men — to light a fire that can burn all of us. It has happened before.
What do we do about this?
Let's say, for the sake of both charity and rigor, that none of this is directly President Trump's fault. He's still the wrong man for this time.
Why? Because his attempts at cultivating unity are so obviously hollow lip service, so quickly replaced by rants about "Crooked Hillary" and basking in "lock him up" chants about George Soros. The worst-case scenario is that Trump knows his power comes from his ability to divide Americans and acts accordingly. The best-case scenario: That he simply lacks the skill and smarts to do the job we expect of presidents during difficult times, to comfort those who mourn and to bring the rest of us together.
Ronald Reagan did it. Barack Obama did it. Even George W. Bush, for all his missteps, did it. Trump, with his "very fine people on both sides" equivocating, is ill-suited to fix what ails us. His response to the terror in Pittsburgh — "If they had protection inside [the synagogue], the results would have been far better" — is typical of his woeful inadequacy to the moment. Even if he isn't part of the problem, he most certainly has no part in the solution.
Which leaves America with a dreadful vacuum of leadership.
We cannot gather at concerts, church services, grocery stores, classrooms, or, now, even for a bris without looking over our shoulders. The results are going to destroy our communities. This is not what Americans want.
What they do want: to be able to gather to celebrate life without fearing the sudden onslaught of death. For many reasons, it seems both simple and impossible right now.
America is broken. Where are the leaders who can help us fix this mess?