Okutan: ​Remembering Pittsburgh

Devise pathways to fight extremism in the aftermath of the anti-Semitic shooting.

by Ezgi Okutan | 11/9/18 2:00am

The anti-Semitic mass-shooting that targeted the congregation of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue left me deeply wounded. Before anything, I must state that I condemn this atrocious hate crime and send my condolences to the nation and especially to the Jewish community, including the Jewish community at Dartmouth. 

On a global scale, this is a time during which we cannot help but be reminded of the hate surrounding us. In 2011, we mourned the murders of 77 people committed by the Islamophobic Anders Breivik at the Worker’s Youth League summer camp in Norway’s Utoya island; in 2015, we mourned when 130 people across Paris were slaughtered by the Islamic State; and in 2016, we mourned when 49 people were gunned down during a Latin Night in Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. It doesn’t matter what country, ethnicity, age, skin color, gender or sexuality people identify with: everyone has the potential to be a target to some extremist who harbors hate. 

The events on  Oct. 27 demonstrated once again that this trend persists. In 2017, anti-Semitic acts alone surged by approximately 60 percent in the U.S., according to the Anti-Defamation League. Today, perhaps the most important question that awaits the international community is how to combat extremism and prevent hate crimes. I argue that the only way, which appears to also be the hardest, is to be open and inclusive to people who are the most isolated and who may have the most radical views. 

I got this idea when I was in Berlin for a Model U.N. conference listening to a presentation about why people were joining extremist terrorist groups. The presentation had underscored that people who were feeling isolated by their society, either as a result of their personalities or political views, would try to seek company by joining extremist organizations that made them feel welcomed. After the presentation, I remember feeling enraged: “There are lots of people who are isolated who aren’t joining terrorist organizations! Why are we justifying these monsters’ actions? They are not humans!” However, my anger pointed exactly at the fatal pitfall: dehumanizing extremists and failing to examine why they might feel such strong hatred will cause more isolation, and thus more hate crimes. 

One of the most influential Ted Talks I’ve ever watched, “I Was Almost A School Shooter” by Aaron Stark , describes how humanizing people who are the most isolated can help prevent similar crimes, and specifically mass shootings. Aaron, who had to change schools practically every week because of his abusive drug-addicted parents and was bullied his entire childhood, hit rock bottom when he called social services because he was having suicidal thoughts. Social services sent him home with his mother, who told him, “Next time, you should do a better job and I’ll buy you the razor blades.” With nothing left to lose, the next morning he ordered a gun with the intention to cause the maximum amount of damage possible. According to him, what stopped him was when a friend who saw his pain and isolation simply sat with him and asked if he’d like to get a meal or see a movie, treating him like a normal person on a normal Tuesday. Stark pointed out, “When someone treats you like a person when you don’t even feel like a human, it’ll change your entire world, and it did to me.” He also added, “Love the ones you feel deserve it the least because they need it the most.” Even if his rage wasn’t directed to one group specifically, this example shows how pulling individuals out of isolation can ease the rage and blockade criminal acts, regardless of the motive. 

Perhaps if people stop dehumanizing fanatics and try to understand what’s going on in their minds, they can provide the help they need and prevent these atrocious acts before they happen. Rather than isolating them and declaring them mentally ill, it’s important to respectfully challenge the reasoning behind their hatred. Daryl Davis is a black musician who has spent his last 30 years becoming friends with Ku Klux Klan members and has convinced 200 of them to give up the Klan. He explains, “If you spend five minutes with your worst enemy ... you will find that you both have something in common. As you build upon those commonalities, you’re forming a relationship and as you build about that relationship, you’re forming a friendship ... I didn’t convert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves.”.  This story demonstrates that by not isolating people with fanatic beliefs and challenging them respectfully, extremists can change their beliefs. 

The government plays a big role in this issue. Instead of condemning terrorist events after they occur, it must work toward creating an open dialogue and reaching out to the isolated extremists before their faulty reasoning lead them toward a terrible crime. As a matter of fact, extremists use social media frequently, so they can be spotted easily. One example would be the case of the Islamic State, where in 2014 there were around  46,000-90,000 Twitter accounts advocating for it. Even the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh Massacre, Robert Bowers, was constantly posting anti-Semitic, supremacist and neo-Nazi comments, where his bio was,  “Jews are the children of Satan.” These red flags shouldn’t be ignored: if the government makes sure the help arrives in time, we may live in a different reality — one in which innocent people aren’t massacred for being who they are. One of the measures which the government can take is to detect accounts that actively support hate speech, domestically and internationally, and undergo constant security checks with the help of foreign intelligence agencies. Thus, it can better control who is admitted to the country and who is not. 

To the Dartmouth community, don’t just ignore hatred: challenge it. Whenever it is safe to do so, challenge hatred by respecting, showing love and engaging in intellectual debates. While this may be the hardest path, it is how the world will combat extremism — through inclusion and dialogue. Because ultimately, as the Tree of Life Congregation states, “The support shown worldwide proves that love truly is stronger than hate.”