Pittsburgh: How We Respond

Robb Davis speaking at Central Park in January 2017 after the Islamic Center Vandalism

By Robb Davis

On Tuesday night over 500 people gathered at Beit Haverim for a service of healing, hosted by the Celebration of Abraham.  It was a time to express sadness, to mourn, but also to speak words of hope in a time of fear and sadness. As I participated in the singing, prayers and words of remembrance, I considered what an appropriate response to Pittsburgh might be—especially for those of us on the opposite end of the country.

I think it is normal and human to have three responses to this act of terror—this great human tragedy.

First, I think we should engage in lamentation: a passionate act of showing grief.  As we gathered in the Jewish house of prayer I was reminded of the important place of lamentation in the Hebrew Bible.  Lamentation is not just, or even primarily, the recitation of words.  It includes the rending of garments and placing ashes upon ones head.  It is a public act of a heart crying out to understand an injustice, a harm, a devastating loss.

Laments are of (at least) three varieties: a person may lament their own sin—their own failing to achieve what they believe God or a higher power wants.  They may be because of an injustice they have had to endure at the hands of evil doers.  But not infrequently laments are directed at the profound brokenness of the world.

“Why does evil prevail?”
“Why do the poor suffer?”
“Where is justice?

These are all questions of the one who laments.  In one sense lamentation is shaking one’s fist at the universe (at God) and demanding an answer to the fundamental question of why injustice seems to prevail in the world.

In this time I believe that a lamentation is called for.  With a humble posture and a clear mind about the brokenness around us, we proclaim our utter incomprehension at what we see.

Second, I think we should be angry—we should respond with anger.  Different from a lament, anger is pure emotion.  Words may not come—the questions and doubts too profound for human speech.  Anger is a deeply physical reaction in the face of wrongdoing. It is not “rational.”  It merely is.

In the Christian “New Testament” St. Paul wrote a letter in which he told followers of the Christian way to “Be angry, but don’t sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.  Don’t give evil a chance.”

There is a place for anger in these days.  Weaponized words that lead to weapons that destroy, demand an angry and hostile response.  But Paul’s exhortation is important: don’t take anger to bed with you.  I think of a parent with a child.  In the night they hold that child close; to nurture that child and protect it so it might grow.

But we can’t treat anger that way Paul seems to say.  If you nurture it in the night.  If you hold it dear, it will grow into a thing that will destroy you.  Don’t let that thing have a chance of coming into being.

Third, we have to act.  We cannot sit by.  The problem is, we cannot act in Pittsburgh, or in myriad other places where mass death has occurred—Indiana, Nevada, South Carolina, Florida… we don’t live there.  We live here.

How do we act in the face of these deeds of mass destruction—how do we act locally?  What does it look like and do local acts mean anything at all?  I remember when I was in Haiti they spoke of the dechoukaj of the post Duvalier period.  Dechoukaj in Creole means to “tear up by the roots,” to pull out the weeds and remove what is useless or harmful.

I always appreciated the image, and years later when I worked on an organic farm, hoeing and pulling weeds days at a time, I realized that the work of uprooting is never done.

The people—the human beings—who have committed the horrific crimes like Robert Bowers did in Pittsburgh walk among us.  They are our neighbors, our family, our workplace acquaintances.  They are not alien to us, they walk our shared space. Many are outcasts, loners—people who have moved to the edges in one way or another.

But experience shows they did not start that way.  Based on what we know about childhood trauma, bullying, loneliness, and lives bereft of hope, we understand that the Robert Bowers of the world are not born monstrous but walk down a long, harsh path of brokenness to arrive at their own destruction and the destruction of others.  They are made outcasts, people of anger, people with no hope.

Our local dechoukaj is not about finding the Bowers among us and throwing them out.  Rather, it is in the tending of our garden—removing the weeds of hate and exclusion from out schools, our playgrounds, our sports fields and our homes.

Trauma borne of abuse, violence, neglect, and bullying in childhood bears a fruit, too often, of violence. Our dechoukaj must focus on pulling out the sources of these things. Every time we volunteer for organizations like CASA, or help with Davis’ youth restorative justice program through YCRC, or support school district efforts to reduce bullying, or take in foster children, or, the many other acts that can help move neglected and abused children beyond the challenges they have faced, we engage in local dechoukaj.

It is careful, long, and tiring work, but along with lamentation and anger, it represents an act that must follow on the brokenness we see in our times.

Robb Davis is former Mayor of Davis

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  1. John Hobbs

    “Rather, it is in the tending of our garden—removing the weeds of hate and exclusion from out schools, our playgrounds, our sports fields and our homes.”

    Beautifully put. Robb, you are a good person. Evil needs to be confronted. These “outcasts loners” may be on the fringes of society, because decent people have shunned them and shamed them . When a President of the United States tells them, “You shouldn’t be ashamed of your ignorance, tribalism and hatred toward outsiders, you should embrace it.” and well heeled white men start playing the victim card, I think we need a more aggressive approach to weed control.


    1. Ron

      John:  “. . . I think we need a more aggressive approach to weed control.”

      How is that any different from the president’s suggestion that armed guards are needed for such situations?  (An idea that is impractical, at best.)

    2. Tia Will

      Excellent article Robb.

      I think we need an earlier start to “weed” control. Hate is not intrinsic to human beings, it is taught. We need to acknowledge and strengthen those endeavors in our community which promote healthier and more loving approaches to our children such those who volunteer as neonatal “baby buddies”, First 5, those who identify and work to ameliorate ACES. We need to ensure that every pregnant woman has optimal prenatal care and adequate home support once the child is brought home. We need to ensure that no child experiences hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care, shunning or bullying.

      We cannot all act on a national level, but we can all act locally.


      1. Jeff M

        We cannot all act on a national level, but we can all act locally.

        Interesting.  Can you abstract this out to “we cannot act on a global level, but we can act nationally”?

        1. Tia Will

           Can you abstract this out to “we cannot act on a global level, but we can act nationally”?

          This depends upon what one means by the word “act”. I should have been more careful with my words. We can “act” locally through direct participation – holding babies whose mom’s are too ill, fostering, mentoring, tutoring. Through donations to local food banks or hands on at the homeless shelters.

          On the national level and international levels , we can act on our beliefs and values directly as Robb did with his international work and as many do with outreach medical, infrastructure development and other programs.

          Of course not everyone has the resources and skills to do this. But we can all participate on national and international levels indirectly. We can use our voices and our vote to support those representatives who are most closely aligned with our beliefs. We can financially support those groups that represent our interests. For me, on the national level that includes the ACLU and PP. On the national level it includes Doctors without Borders and environmental protection groups.

        2. Jeff M

          You danced around my question and point.

          You advocate local focus, but see those with a national focus as bad or wrong, correct?

          This is an important question because I think it gets to some of the root cause for what is causing some people to boil.   There has been some good writing on the similarity of the white power groups and the Antifa groups as having the same basis of anger.  Many young people feeling disenfranchised.  Feeling that their government does not care about them and is moving in a direction against their self interests.

          From what I see much of our partisan ideological war is fomented from the forces of those pursuing a new world global order and those that believe this is wrong and hazardous to the health of the nation.

          I just find it interesting how someone like you that subscribes to the politics that seems to want open borders and to capitulate national sovereignty to global authority, at the same time demonstrate a very strong “localist” tendency.   I cannot reconcile it and hence it seems irrational to me.   It is like you value your Davis tribe as superior but all others as equal or inferior.  In other words, Davis deserves to be protected from encroachment or degradation of its current tribal norms (restrict development to restrict who might otherwise live here), but to hell with the rest of the tribes outside of Davis… and the nation as a whole… all those other tribes should accept encroachment and greater tribal integration because it will be an improvement to their shoddy and inadequate tribal norms.

          If not this explanation, then please explain.

  2. Keith O

    “You shouldn’t be ashamed of your ignorance, tribalism and hatred toward outsiders, you should embrace it.” 

    I did a Google search and couldn’t find that quote anywhere.

  3. Keith O

    I think everyone agrees with almost everything Robb Davis wrote here.  The problem arises when a few people try and turn it into fodder to use solely against the President.

    1. Jeff M

      I agree with this 100%.  And I believe the voting core of the country agrees with Robb’s words and that those that attempt to turn the event into political fodder are doing their political agenda harm.

      1. Keith O

        You know Jeff it would be just easy to say that the rhetoric from the left caused these lunatics  to go off.  If they bring a knife we bring a gun, kick em while they’re down, confront them wherever they go and let them know they aren’t welcome anymore, etc.

        Maybe this type of hatred triggered something in these crazies to go off?  Maybe they felt like they had to fight back or get even?

        1. Craig Ross

          This is the most important post on this whole thread other than Robb’s.  Keith has managed to capture the mindset of the radical right perfectly here.  This is how dangerous it is.  Good that he’s willing to express it so clearly.

        2. Keith O

          Not at all, the left is trying to put the full blame on Trump for the recent occurances but we don’t know what triggered these lunatics or what might trigger future ones.  The hateful rhetoric coming from the left, some of which I’ve cited, could just as easily have been the cause or create future crazies to act out.

          Are you really going to deny that?

        3. Craig Ross

          The analysis you’re presenting ignores the role that Trump has played in completely changing the rules of the game.  So yeah, there is a lot of anger in response to Trump, but Trump himself has given license to behavior that was once proscribed in the political process.  Any analysis that ignores the role of Trump in this is going to fail.

        4. Keith O

          I agree, both sides contribute, but so far all I’ve pretty much seen on here is Trump was the cause.  So it’s nice to see you admit that the left shares in the responsibility for these acts.

          After all, the “Resist” movement has spurned much hate.

        5. Jeff M

          Keith – Here is why you are more right and Craig is unable to see it.

          To the left, Trump and his supporters are evil.

          To the right, the ideas of the left are flawed.

          And thus there is no arguing with the left as they have drawn the moral line.

          For the right, they are ready, willing and able to debate the left on their ideas.

          But by calling those on the right so many names and refusing to engage in debate other than protest and name-calling, I believe they are responsible for lighting the fuse of action derived from internalized hate.

          Now, those that do violence are 100% responsible for their own actions.  But in terms of level of secondary influence, I would say the behavior of the political left owns the larger share of blame.  And if you disagree I have a list of almost 600 actions of the left that I will share again on the VG.

          Lastly, I think Trump does have some share of this secondary blame.

        6. Ken A

          I have read at least 100 times that “Trump has made it OK to act out” and when today Craig writes “Trump himself has given license to behavior that was once proscribed in the political process” and I’m wondering if Craig can let us all know what Trump has done (other than using Twitter that is new) that has “made it OK” or “given license” to nutballs to act out.  I’m no Trump fan and think he is a crazy guy that sits around watching cable news, drinking Diet Coke and tweeting most days, but I seem to have missed where he said it is OK to shoot anyone.  I read a lot of books and anyone else that reads about the history of politics knows that Trump is pretty mild compared to many politicians since California became a state in 1950 (Democrat David Broderick shot No Nothing Party Member David Terry on what is not the 5th green at the SFGC in 1859) and the political “machines” (and/or their mob buddies) in Chicago and NYC beat the crap out of anyone they didn’t like on a regular basis in the early 20th century (a LOT more violent than a few non PC and/or kind of crazy tweets)…

          P.S. Thanks to Rob for writing this and I agree with Jeff that the “voting core of the country agrees with Robb’s words” when you get past the fact that some people are a little too uptight about conservative issues (and make a big deal about flag burning) and some people are a a little to PC (and make a big deal about calling someone “handicapped” vs. “handicapable”) most people are basically pretty nice people.  It is unfortunate be throughout human history some people have major problems and just like I don’t think we should blame Obama for a guy killing his next door neighbors in Davis I don’t think we should blame Trump for a guy killing worshipers in Pittsburgh…

  4. Tia Will

    The problem arises when a few people try and turn it into fodder to use solely against the President.”

    The problem of hatred for fellow citizens identified as “the other” has arisen long before the current Presidency. Perhaps you have forgotten the “hatreds” expressed from both sides during the Viet Nam war. Or the Oklahoma City Bombing. Or the too many to enumerate mass shootings. The problem existed long before this President, who is doing nothing to lessen the hatred but rather fanning the flames for political gain, and it will exist long after his departure from our political scene.


  5. Tia Will

    You advocate local focus, but see those with a national focus as bad or wrong, correct?”

    Incorrect. No wonder you see “my” beliefs as irrational. You make up what you think I am saying and then discredit that which I have not even hinted at. So I will try once more by framing this more clearly in answer to the question, “what acts can we take to promote our positive values”? Some examples of what can be done at various organizational levels.

    Locally – hands on with infant and child care, provision of food, housing, mentoring, tutoring

    Regionally – support for public health and education both with our taxes and volunteering

    Nationally – voting for and supporting the work of the representatives that we feel most closely reflect our values. Also on the national level, supporting those causes/organizations that  promote our values. Another example: Habitat for Humanity as the Carters have done for decades.

    Internationally- Directly with medical outreach such as Medical Brigades which I participated in or indirectly with donations to groups such as Doctors Without Borders.

    I will be happy to clarify anything I have said that you do not understand, or any genuine countering statement you may want to make. I will not longer engage when you are trying to tell me I did not address your question when I clearly did, or when you decide to tell me what it is I “really think or feel”.




      1. Tia Will


        what makes you think I am telling you what you feel?”

        This is the answer to your question. You danced around my question and point.

        You advocate local focus, but see those with a national focus as bad or wrong, correct?”

        You made two declarative statements about my intent and opinion, and then tack a “correct ?” on the end as though you were making an inquiry. Do you understand how I might interpret this as you already having made up your mind about my thought process?

  6. Craig Ross

    I was going to book mark Keith’s comment but it’s gone.  Darn.  Erasing this is not a good idea.  Preserving the actual thinking of the right is critical.

    1. Keith O

      All of my comments are still intact as far as I can see.

      Preserving the actual thinking of the right is critical.

      Thank you, there’s a lot of wisdom you can learn from it.

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