Of all the bad news in the newspaper, the reports—like the one last night, of two gay teens being killed and an additional eight wounded by gunfire, when a gunman sprayed weapon fire at a weekly support group for gay and lesbian teens at the Tel Aviv Gay and Lesbian Association building—hits me about the hardest. Why? That could be summed up by this quote from May Pamel, Association director; during a brief interview after the incident, Pamel said, "We have joined the roster of 'civilized' countries where hatred is the standard."
What a dubious distinction (perhaps especially so for a country that suffers so much violence for other reasons that Israeli police were quick to deem this incident “criminal, rather than nationalistic”) to join these ranks. A person—we always say, a disturbed individual, an outlier, an extreme, lone “crazy”—decides he or she cannot tolerate gayness or blackness and picks up a gun or a rope… like any number of incidents, think, Matthew Shepherd’s death or a lone gunman at the Holocaust Museum—it’s tempting to lay blame solely upon the individual or individuals who picked up weapons and used them. While those individuals are responsible for their abhorrent actions, as Ms. Pamel described, incidents like these can only occur if hatred –“the standard”—is allowed to spread in virulent ways. And this is why those physical acts of violence, even if carried out by so-called outliers, are so terribly painful. On some level, the kind of tacit acceptance of prejudice makes us all more vulnerable to overt acts of violence.
Reading about this comes after over a week of witnessing our country pouring a curious salt onto the wound of its own racism. This particular injury was Henry Louis Gates’ arrest that should not have taken place. The hurt only began there, though; the media went hog wild with the sodium, especially after President Obama’s response to a final question (deemed by some critics and supporters as “off message” from health care, upon which he was focused) in a press conference two days after the incident, in which he chided the Cambridge police for an erroneous, uncalled for arrest. Right-wing mouthpieces went so far as to call Obama a racist. Smarter, cooler heads, like Frank Rich, spoke to shifting demographics; many reminded us of racism's enduring prevalence; Bob Herbert wrote of the righteous role of anger; and there were reflections about the role of class. For whatever reason—officially, to seize the opportunity for a “teachable moment”—President Obama invited Gates and his arresting officer, James Crowley, to the White House lawn for a beer. The contrived, supposedly informal gathering, dubbed by media the “beer summit,” took place on Thursday. Never before has such (media) attention been paid to what kind of beer guests and leaders drank. Teachable moment, my foot: this seemed like an exceedingly elaborate set up for a “casual” photo op. Thing is, so much of what has been said over the past nearly two weeks rings true; most pointedly, that the fact of so many false arrests due to skin color is not only wrong, but legitimately merits anger on the part of those subject to unfair treatment and merits anger from white people if for no other reason than because that kind of prejudice is wrong.
On the one hand, you have a world where barriers are being shattered. Same-sex marriage is legal in more and more places—in the United States, in other countries—and the demographics suggest that over time, acceptance about same-sex unions will only increase. This country, one that only formally desegregated schools a half-century ago, now has an African American President, its third female Secretary of State and is about to affirm a Latina woman as Supreme Court Justice. On the other hand, you have a world where teens are shot during a gay youth support group meeting and black children are barred from a pool in the Northeast (blue) corridor, and where Republican Senators behave like pigs toward a highly qualified nominee for the Supreme Court and are not censured. You could go back and forth—on the one hand, on the other hand—ad nauseam, because there are so many laudable developments that speak to a more just world and so many abhorrent incidents that could put a person at risk of losing faith for equality’s future.
My knee-jerk personal reaction to the Tel Aviv shooting was a sense of fear for my outspoken (longhaired) boys; regardless of how they identify, they may “look gay” to some and they will almost certainly be outspoken about equality and gay rights (they already are). I am proud of them. I hate to think that their beliefs potentially place them at increased risk (and I am certain that they do, in some places). My toddler daughter, who is very light-skinned, is still biracial. Will her sense of racial identity put her at risk one day? While I do not want this to be something I worry about in the slightest, I’d be lying if I assured anyone, including myself, that this never crosses my mind; it certainly does. I really want for my children a sense that their beliefs about equality and identities will be met with acceptance.
It sounds so simple as not to need to be said, but clearly we must: intolerance—of a person’s sexuality or ethnicity or race—can only be humanely met with intolerance, if we are to become a safer and more compassionate society. The salt spilled all over our collective floor should carry this message: we have a lot of work ahead to make compassion prevail over intolerance.