May 11, 2000
Nothing much happened in Los Angeles last week to mark it as a special week in Jewish history. Ditto for Chicago and Sacramento, Calif.
No, it was pretty much a normal week in all three cities. Kids read their bar and bat mitzvah portions. A few couples got married. Folks gathered, as they do this time every year, to observe Holocaust Remembrance Day with the usual speeches, chanting of El malei rachamim ("God of compassion") and vows of "Never again."
Nothing much happened to remind you that an exclusive little club of three - Sacramento, Los Angeles and Chicago - had just gained a fourth member. Pittsburgh had become the fourth American community inside a year to experience an armed anti-Semitic assault by a right-wing terrorist. Yes, again. On Friday afternoon, April 28, Richard Scott Baumhammers, a suburban Pittsburgh attorney with far-right views and a history of mental illness, allegedly shot his Jewish next door neighbor to death and set her house afire. The victim, Anita "Nicki" Gordon, 63, was found near her front door, shot six times, hands outstretched in a vain effort to protect herself.
He then set out by car on a two-county orgy of racist violence, shooting up two synagogues, a Chinese restaurant, an Indian grocery and a karate club, killing four more people: an African American and three immigrants, from India, China and Vietnam. Another Indian immigrant was critically injured. Baumhammers, 34, is a child of Latvian immigrants. He received his law degree in 1992 at a Baptist college in Alabama, after spending a semester abroad at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. He briefly practiced immigration law in Georgia, but was hospitalized for mental illness and eventually returned to Pittsburgh. Increasingly preoccupied with his Latvian roots, he repeatedly visited Europe, where he was said to be in touch with far-right militants.
Last winter he launched his own "political party," the Free Market Party, which favored ending "Third World immigration" and restoring "European American" supremacy. It had no known adherents, though its Web site was impressive enough that the Council of Conservative Citizens, a Southern group with ties to Republican congressional leaders, agreed to a link.
Pittsburgh, Jewish and non-Jewish, reacted to the shootings with a now-familiar outpouring of grief, condemnation and intergroup solidarity. Victims' funerals became public demonstrations of sympathy. The Anti-Defamation League and NAACP joined in a downtown Pittsburgh rally against "hate violence." The desecrated synagogues were packed Friday evening with Jews and non-Jews from across Pittsburgh, come to show unity.
Jewish community leaders declared that the shootings proved the need for stricter gun-control laws and vowed a stepped-up campaign in the coming weeks. "What was in play here was [the suspect's] ability to gain access to high-power weapons," said Edie Naveh, director of the Pittsburgh Jewish Community Relations Council.
What's not planned is an examination of Baumhammers' political motives. "We have to be very careful about reading too much into it about hate groups and anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Neal Scheindlin of Beth El Congregation, one of the desecrated synagogues. "While he clearly had read some of that stuff, he also had some mental illness. I don't know that it represents much beyond himself."
But this wasn't some isolated breakdown. It was part of a growing nationwide pattern - indeed, a virtual replay of assaults elsewhere.
The first came last June in Sacramento, when three synagogues were firebombed in a coordinated attack. The men eventually charged, Benjamin Matthew and James Tyler Williams, are also suspected in the separate shooting death of a gay couple in northern California.
In July in Chicago, six Jews were shot - none fatally - while walking home from synagogue on a Friday night. Over the next two days the shooter, 21-year-old Benjamin Smith, an activist in the far-right World Church of the Creator, drove through two states, shooting at blacks and Asians. When it was over there were two dead - one black, one Korean-American - and seven wounded, including the six Jews. Smith shot himself after police cornered him in southern Illinois.
Then came the armed assault on the North Valley Jewish Community Center in suburban Los Angeles in August. After wounding five Jews - a center worker, a teen counselor and three children - the suspected shooter, Buford Furrow, allegedly drove off to shoot and kill an Asian-American postal worker. And now Pittsburgh.
Three of the four incidents - in Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh - follow a precise pattern: extended shooting sprees, each by an individual with far-right views and a history of mental illness. And, says Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council director Jay Tcath, "in all three cases anti-Semitism was the trigger. All three started their attacks with Jews and then went on to attack others." It's not exactly an anti-Semitic terror wave, but it's close.
Oddly, the Pittsburgh attack "seems to have barely made a blip on the radar screen," Tcath said. The nation's major newspapers buried it deep inside. No editorials or op-eds denounced it. In Jewish communities around the country there was barely a yawn - no rallies, no solidarity funds, nothing. Why not? "Maybe it's outrage exhaustion, a sense that we've seen it all before," Tcath said. Maybe we missed it "because it wasn't in a major media market, like Chicago or Los Angeles. And because there wasn't an extended chase to hold the public's attention."
Still, Tcath said, "it's a little befuddling. The incident in Pittsburgh had a much higher death toll than the others." It was also the first incident in which a Jew was killed. Why haven't Jews responded? The apathy puts community leaders in a ticklish position. Those who do see the larger picture are hesitant to speak out too firmly. "Starting a panic won't help anyone," says regional ADL director Joel Ratner. But silence is dangerous, too. It leaves Jews under the misapprehension that attacks like Baumhammers' merely represent isolated violence by deranged individuals. That's wrong.
There's a subculture of extremism out there, driven by cynics and fanatics and accelerated by the Internet, waiting for a lost soul to come along and pull the trigger. And wishing won't make it go away.
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal