Where the Helpers Were

and it’s still true. via Giphy

Did you know that Squirrel Hill is Mr. Roger’s neighborhood? Even if you’ve never been there, even if you don’t think you know a soul who lived near the Tree of Life Synagogue, if you’re an American anywhere near my age range, chances are good you know Squirrel Hill. It’s where the helpers lived—and now, it’s been targeted by a white nationalist terrorist, and people worshipping in their temple have been massacred.

I do know someone in Squirrel Hill: or, rather, three someones: my uncle,1 my aunt, one of my cousins D. It could have been their synagogue. It could have been them. Mr. Rogers himself attended church near Tree of Life. Squirrel Hill, with its charming hills and lovely houses, has been in all our houses, or most—and even if they weren’t directly there, they made their way, because Mr. Rogers is a part of our culture. (For what it’s worth, hills like those in Pittsburgh scare the hell out of me—I can’t see what’s lurking, just over there, and the only time I feel like I can really breathe is when I make my way down to the river. But I’m a Chicagoan.)

Violent rhetoric has a way of begetting violence. I have been slowly watching the incredible German show Babylon Berlin, based on a series by the same name and bearing with it nearly everything I love in a television show: gritty and noir-ish settings and deeply flawed heroes; hard-edged women and broken men. And, in this case, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the horrifying descent of the Weimar Republic. Berlin could be Chicago, or New York, or presumably one of those cities far out west, Berlin-before-the-fall, and Babylon Berlin is brilliant, and it hurts like hell to watch.

Violent words bring violence. We have raced full-throttled into an American crisis, one with roots that plunge back to the diseased soil of Reconstruction and which came into poisonous flower once more in November 2016, as colleagues of my mother’s were beaten and left for dead in towns where they had performed for years, and had swastikas carved into their homes and their cars. In the past week alone, a white terrorist gunned down African Americans while they shopped; a white terrorist from Florida engaged in a pipe bomb mailing spree, all to Democrats and organizations a certain orange lizardperson hates—and there was a massacre in a synagogue.

Hate breeds hate. The rhetoric of whiteness—itself a made-up concept, and one I will never really understand—feeds itself on fear and hate. Hell, it was on full display during a certain trial in Chicago, one which ended, much to my relief, with a guilty verdict I had been afraid to expect. Hate and hysteria—of the other, or perhaps just our fellow Americans from Central America, in whose countries we’ve played as if in a sandbox—build and boil over into violence. My country—the country my ancestors fought to create—spills out facile words, time and time again, and they are, surely, more worthless now than ever, as racism and its close kin anti-Semitism tumble out of Twitter into our streets.

Berlin-before-the-fall didn’t quite realize what was coming; they thought—as many of us did—that checks and balances might prevent the worst of it. They were, of course, wrong, and many of them died—some in camps, some in slaughter, some in bombing raids, some in standing against Hitler. We are fond, in our country, of saying that we’d have done better. Well, the time to do better is now. It was yesterday. It will be tomorrow, and on November 6, at the ballot box.

What will we do?


1 My uncle has survived three terrorist attacks already. Now one has followed him to the safety of his neighborhood.

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