The Sin of Standing Idly By
It was back on Rosh Hashanah evening of 1999 that I presented to my congregation a very unsettling sermon entitled “Summer of Hate; Winter of Challenge.” It was all about how the Summer of 1999 was marked by hate crime after hate crime; act of violence after act of violence, many, but not all of which, were targeted at fellow Jews. The most famous of those acts of violence was the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. But beside from the Columbine shooting, during that summer there were also synagogue burnings in Sacramento, California, a noted member of a hate group going on a shooting spree in Illinois and Indiana, targeting Jews, African Americans and Asians, and another hate group member entering a Jewish community center in Granada Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, in order to shoot Jewish children in a day care program. It was an extremely violent summer and it was time for us as Americans to put an end to hate and particularly gun violence in our nation.
This coming Spring, my congregation will celebrate with two wonderful young ladies as each will become a Bat Mitzvah. When I gave that sermon back in 1999, those two young ladies were not yet born. Yet here they are, each one preparing to become a Bat Mitzvah, and we Americans are still faced with some of the same dreadful problems as confronted us then, gun violence being one such problem; a major problem.
Indeed, the serious concern over this issue in our country even predates the birth of these young ladies. In my congregation, three years before I gave that sermon, a young man by the name of Daniel Werner made gun violence, in the form of drive-by shootings, the topic of his Bar Mitzvah speech.
Now it is 2012 and we have just endured another summer of violence; violence pouring out of the barrels of guns. There was the shooting in the moving theater in Aurora, Colorado. There was the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Milwaukee. There was the shooting at the headquarters of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. There was the shooting in front of the Empire State Building. This summer’s gun violence was a shocking testimony to how broad based is this problem. Today, resorting to using firearms as a means of expression is not just to be found in the realm of the political or social radicals. There are many different kinds of people who pick up guns and pull the trigger as an expression of their own inner turmoil. The shooter in Colorado used a gun to give expression to his own mental illness. In Milwaukee, the shooter used it to express his prejudice against minorities. In Washington, the shooter used it to express his anger at those who promote a conservative social agenda. In New York, the shooter used it to express his frustration with events in his personal life. And these only represent the incidents of gun violence that have merited the attention of the national news media. They are but only the tip of the bloody iceberg of gun violence in America today.
Let me share with you some statistics, and I hope that these statistics disturb you as greatly as they disturb me.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes issues an annual Global Study on Homicide. In its latest report, issued in 2011, the United States ranked 15th in the world in gun related homicides. This report is rated by the number of gun related homicides for each 100,000 people in a nation’s population. For the United States, the number is 4.6 for every 100,000 Americans. The nations who rank higher than us are to be found primarily in Latin America and the Caribbean, with some in Eastern Europe. However, when it comes to affluent nations, the United States ranks number 1, with no one else coming close. In fact, the affluent European nations typically have a rate of 1 per 100,000, if not lower. For example the rate for France is 1.4; for the United Kingdom, 1.1; for Italy, 1.0; for both Spain and Germany, 0.9; and for Switzerland, 0.7. We Americans love to brag about our being #1, but this is a first place prize which should shake us to our very core.
While the United Nations report focuses on crime, and in this case homicides, there also has been a study done by the United States Center for Disease Control. Theirs is a study of shootings in America, criminal and otherwise, fatal or not. According to their findings, approximately 105,000 Americans are shot every year (104,852 in 2010) with approximately 31,500 of them being killed (31,347 in 2010). This averages out to 287 Americans shot every day, 86 of them fatally.
When it comes to the number of Americans killed by guns every year, it may surprise you to learn that the number one cause of fatal gun deaths is not homicide. It is suicide. In 2010, while 11,493 of our fellow citizens were murdered with guns, 18,735 Americans use guns to kill themselves. Several years ago, my brother-in-law was one of them. He was a manic depressive who went off his medication. He owned a pistol to protect his business. But in a depressive state, alone in his house, he sat down on the couch in his family room, put the barrel of the pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The remainder of the annual gun deaths are categorized as either unintentional, undetermined or the result of a legal intervention, which I imagine is their way of saying that these people where shot and killed by law enforcement officers in the performance of their duties.
This study also points out that beside from those Americans who die at the barrel of a gun, every year there also are approximately 73,500 people who are shot but not killed (73,505 in 2010). When we add up those numbers, we arrive at the devastating annual figure of approximately 105,000 Americans who are either killed or injured with a firearm. This is nothing less than a profound national tragedy.
When we who live in the Quad Cities watch and read the news reports about all these shootings, we have a tendency to think of them as always happening someplace else, like in Colorado or New York. Yet we in Iowa and Illinois are not immune to this disease of gun violence. It touches our states and our communities as well. According to the FBI’s latest Uniform Crime Report, there were 21 firearms related murders in Iowa in 2010 and 364 in Illinois. During that year, there were other crimes such as robberies and aggravated assaults in which firearms were used as well. But we do not need to turn to the statistics compiled by the FBI to know that guns are killing people – often children – in our community. All we need do is open the newspaper and watch the TV news. In fact, just the other day one of my congregants – Linda Golden, who is a high school teacher in Rock Island, Illinois – was telling me about having attended a funeral for a student in her school who had been shot to death. I would like to say that such shootings are rare in our community, but the fact is that they are happening far more often than we dare to admit. But since they are not happening to our children, but to other peoples’ children, we tend to pay them scant heed.
Why am I talking to you about gun violence on Yom Kippur? This is supposed to be a deeply spiritual day during which we plumb the depths of our own souls – when we take inventory of our lives – when we confront our own personal sins and shortcomings, and hopefully resolve to repair and correct them. Where does gun violence fit into any of that?
The violence born of guns which plagues our nation – which draws our attention and breaks our hearts from time to time over the years, when there is a Columbine or a Granada Hills or a Virginia Tech, or an Aurora, Colorado, or a Sikh Temple shooting – is a corporate, national sin for which there must be both repentance and atonement. Whether we realize it or not – whether we accept it or not – corporate national sins, especially in this nation which prides itself on being the great democracy, are also personal sins. They belong to each and every one of us, just as much as all the sins we list in the “Al Chet Shechatanu” prayer; just as much as all those other sins which we may not have found listed in the High Holy Day prayer book but which each of us might have privately listed as we pondered our personal weaknesses and failings and as we aspired to improve upon those behaviors in the year ahead. As members of a democracy we do not possess the luxury to be able to say, “That’s the nation’s sin. It is not mine.” For they are ours. For in a democracy, the sins of the nation become the sins of each of its citizens. Why? Because we create the nation. We create it and we recreate it every single election day. The people who make the decisions and take the actions, or fail to take the actions, which determine the very nature of our nation are the ones who come election day need our votes – our approval and our support – which in turn bestows upon them the power to mold our nation’s present and fashion its future. So if our elected officials have allowed this nation to wallow in the sin of gun violence, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for we have permitted our elected officials to allow this tragedy to be reenacted time and time again without their making any effort to alter or stop it. Yes, often they go to the sites of what the media luridly describes as “masacres” and they attend the funerals and they may even wax eloquent in their eulogies, but they do nothing to stop it. Their tears are crocodile tears, and it is our fault – we, the voters – for we let them get away with it.
The sad reality is that we do not need to dress our young people up in uniforms and send them to foreign soil in order to suffer massive American casualties. We only need to send them to high schools and colleges and houses of worship and movie theaters, for in our current gun environment they could just as easily fall victim in those places. My daughter, Helene, and her friends love to go to these midnight movie premieres, like the premiere of the Batman film in Aurora at which that horrible shooting took place. But as the Aurora shooting shows us, when one goes to such a premiere, one takes one’s life in their hands. Are any of us so foolish as to believe that while it can happen in Aurora, Colorado it cannot happen in our own community? Of course it can! For it is as easy for an unstable person to acquire the firepower in most American communities as it was for James Eagan Holmes to acquire it Aurora, Colorado. And if that were to happen in our own community, God forbid, then the sin would be upon our heads because we allowed those in power to remain in power while do nothing to protect our children from lunatics with guns.
On Yom Kippur afternoon, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah the text commonly called The Holiness Code. In it there is a verse – Leviticus chapter 19, verse 16 – which states “You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” This is the sin for which we must repent and atone; the sin of standing idly by while all our neighbors who have become victims in all of these shootings, time and time and time again have bled and died while we have remained silent.
This past summer, soon after the shootings in Aurora, the members of our new Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship struggled with the question of how can our community of faiths put our various faiths to work so that as a united faith community we can say, “Enough already! Too many have died and died needlessly.” So we have started to address this issue. Our first step was to write a letter to our various elected officials, both local and national, expressing our concern. An edited version of that letter appeared in Sunday’s Quad City Times But that is not where our efforts will end. Indeed, in the wake of the Milwaukee shooting we gave our full support to the local Sikh community. Next month we will be meeting to look at future action steps. One thing seem certain. We wish to place a special emphasis on gun deaths in our own community. As we develop our action plans, I pray that many others will join us in our efforts.
For far too long, we all have known about this blight upon our society. We have condemned it. We have mourned it. But we have not taken sufficient action to alter it. When you think about it, it is a disgrace that the two young ladies who will celebrate becoming Bat Mitzvah this Spring were born into an America in which we, the people, were aware of and distraught about the loss of life in our society because of the proliferation and accessibility of firearms, yet here it is 13 years later, and nothing has changed. The killing remains ongoing and indiscriminate. It is not enough for us to pray that the day will come when a child becomes a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah and does so in an America which knows no gun violence. We have to work for that goal as well. We have to make our elected officials understand that we, the citizens of America – that we, the potential victims of future gun violence in our country – will no longer tolerate their empty promises and gross inaction. Together, may we create an America where we no longer fear that we or our children may be shot and killed simply because we were walking down the street or attending a worship service or going to a movie.
This entry was posted on September 28, 2012 at 12:06 am and is filed under !999 Summer of Hate, Atoning for Sins, Aurora Colorado Movie Theater Shootings, Columbine Shootings, Family Research Council Shootings, FBI Uniform Crime Report, Granada Hills Jewish Community Center Shootings, Gun Violence as a Corporate National Sin, Gun Violence in America, Hate, Milwaukee Sikh Temple Shootings, Prejudice, Quad Cities Interfaith Fellowship, Repenting Sins, Responsibility of the Citizens for the Sins of the Nation in a Democracy, Sacremento Synagogue Arsons, Summer of Hate, The Center for Disease Control Study on Shootings in America, Uncategorized, United Nations Global Study on Homocide, US Social Issues, Yom Kippur. You can subscribe via RSS 2.0 feed to this post's comments.
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