Highland Park shooting: Martyrs or victims? - comment

While the shooter slithered around in the swamps of online bigotry, no one has found rants specifically targeting Jews, let alone Highland Park’s Jews. Apparently, he just hated people.

 BICYCLES AND a stroller, among other abandoned personal belongings, are removed by FBI agents from the scene of the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. (photo credit: CHENEY ORR/REUTERS)
BICYCLES AND a stroller, among other abandoned personal belongings, are removed by FBI agents from the scene of the July 4 mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois.
(photo credit: CHENEY ORR/REUTERS)

Since the brutal July 4 murders in the heavily Jewish community of Highland Park – oops, I mean, the “affluent, mostly white suburb” of Chicago – many keep pondering the shooter’s motive. Did he choose this village to hunt Jews or are reporters correct in downplaying the fact that so many victims were Jewish? I am haunted by the image of Kevin McCarthy, 37, shielding his two-year-old son Aiden with his body – it parallels an equally heroic act this spring in Bnei Brak, when Avishai Yehezkel, 29, shielded his two-year-old from a terrorist. Both dads died; both kids survived.

So far, there has been no smoking gun, pardon the expression. While the shooter slithered around in the swamps of online bigotry, no one has found rants specifically targeting Jews, let alone Highland Park’s Jews. Apparently, he just hated people.

With the investigation ongoing, and with the 17th of Tamuz next week inaugurating three weeks of mourning Jewish martyrs building up to Tisha Be’av, remembering both temples’ destructions, I ask the spin-off question. How would the significance of these tragedies change, if these victims died in a random shooting or a targeted Jew-hating crime – for the mourners, and for us?

Clearly, death is death, loss is loss. “For these things I do weep, My eyes flow with tears;” we will read next month on Tisha Be’av. “Far from me is any comforter, Who might revive my spirit.” Those mourning the unfathomable, unfair, death of a child, a parent, a grandparent, a friend, who was simply celebrating America’s Independence Day, are lamenting the many loving living moments in the future this mass-murderer stole from them.

What specifically twisted his mind is irrelevant to these new anguish-filled vacuums. Nothing can undo that moment. Nothing can bring these special souls back – or instantly heal the dozens who were shot, or fully end the trauma for so many nevertheless lucky bystanders. Living in the real world, we work through the consequences of all kinds of incidents – sometimes for the rest of our lives.

 Community members gather at a memorial site near the parade route the day after a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, US July 5, 2022 (credit: CHENEY ORR/REUTERS) Community members gather at a memorial site near the parade route the day after a mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, US July 5, 2022 (credit: CHENEY ORR/REUTERS)

Still, we all are natural storytellers. That’s why prosecutors focus on motive – and judges will extend or shorten sentences based on the “why” not just the “what.” The narratives we weave leave us uncomfortably dependent on the evildoer; it really is the murders he wrote.

Further complicating the debate is the American power struggle over framing these mass shootings as “gun violence” or “cultural rot.” Somehow, few people answer: “yes, both.” Yes, no civilian needs to own weapons of mass destruction. And, yes, Americans need to ask why so many young men are growing up so broken, so evil.

Viewing this “was it Jew-hatred or not” debate from Jerusalem, where too many of our neighbors are raised to aspire to murder us in mass shootings and bombings, we know how much motive counts. And, during this annual period of mourning, Jews reasonably wonder whether Highland Park should join a litany of blood-stained places shaping our collective memory, stretching back millennia, and most-recently updated with Pittsburgh and Poway, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv.

"Martyr"

The word “martyr,” coming from the Greek for “witness,” is complex. Jews originally used the label for those who chose to die for their faith or their people. Over the centuries, many Jew-haters didn’t give Jews a choice, they simply murdered people for doing nothing but being Jews – most dramatically during the Holocaust. Still, all the Jews the Nazis and their enablers killed are “martyrs.”

The terminology gets more confusing in Israel. Alas, Palestinian terrorists have continued this sick tradition of targeting Jews for being Jewish – adding hundreds of martyrs to our memorial rolls. And most victims were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time – slaughtered while walking, eating, commuting, praying or traveling.

Of course, some Israeli martyrs were soldiers, police officers and bystanders-turned-fighters, who, like Rabbi Akiva, actively died for our faith and our people. Still, many Zionists dislike calling Jews-who-fight-back “martyrs,” because the term reeks of victimhood, passivity, evoking millennia of Jewish powerlessness.

Intellectually, it helps to distinguish between martyrs-by-choice and martyrs-by-chance, just as you only become a martyr if your death is associated with a cause. A child who dies of cancer or in a car accident is no less mourned but rarely a martyr. And beware the Palestinian ability to mass-produce counterfeit martyrs, like the reporter Shireen Abu Akleh. She was killed in the fog of a crossfire – there is zero evidence she was singled-out for murder.

The Hebrew word for martyrs, kedoshim, actually liberates us emotionally – and ideologically – from this branding pickle. Even as we seek answers, explore motives, brainstorm solutions and, yes, tell stories that begin with the victimizer not just the beloved victims, there’s no competition. All those killed as Jews, whether in the act of defending our state or simply in the act of being themselves, are holy, kadosh.

So, yes, we do what we can to learn about the criminals. This is not to glorify them but to try diagnosing then minimizing or eliminating whatever scourge that motivated them. It could range from an addiction to easily-obtained automatic rifles to an emptiness of the soul in a throwaway culture of loneliness, anger and alienation, to an ancestral Jew-hatred to its updated anti-Zionist form. But, most important, we honor the memories – and sacrifices – of those who died unnecessarily, prematurely. We shout “Never Again” to the haters; while reassuring the survivors... “you’re never alone.”

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and three books on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, co-authored with Natan Sharansky, was published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.