Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!'”

Mea Culpa, Cecil Rosenthal! I Say to You, “Arise!”

I

Tree of Life Synagogue (Credit: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

Pools of blood. Let us be graphic. Scatterings of brain, pieces of brain. Let us press a fist into our breastbones as we speak. Shrapnel made of skull. Let us behold hatred made visible. The mantle soaked dark red, the scroll stained? Let us run toward the wretched truth as recklessly as police did the synagogue door. The day for decorum has passed. Platitudes be damned.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yes, well, spare them. If I’m right that God is love, then the eleven who were executed in Tree of Life Synagogue don’t need a single intercession from any of us. As for loved ones, I daresay what they need far more than petitions are witnesses willing to name the evil at work and claim their share of responsibility for bringing it under submission.

Our most efficacious prayer, then, would be to stand over the still bodies, to look closely and mindfully and not to turn away. If we can’t do so in the physical Squirrel Hill sanctuary turned slaughterhouse, then we can imagine. That’s what we owe the dead. In fact, that’s what we owe ourselves. That’s what we owe our country. To stare down carnage, to rend our hearts, to reject euphemisms and the lazy comfort of denial.

Do I sound gory? Maybe so, but thoughts and prayers as numerous as the stars in the sky, well intended though they may be, make clear that what we really want is for Yahweh to swoop down and clean up our mess for us—a request that would make wise parents shake their heads and say, “This is quite a mess you’ve made. Best be about cleaning it up.”

Unfortunately, I can’t clean up what’s not real. Like Thomas, I have to put my Christian hand into all the wounds. I have to touch the mantle. kiss my fingertips, and see the Tree of Life Torah for myself.

II

I’m as culpable as any other American, “in bondage to sin and unable to free [myself],” as my Lutheran confession reads. Every Sunday I stand in worship and join brothers and sisters in owning up: “We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

Our confession rises at St. John’s Lutheran church.

So I begin with love of neighbor, with eleven faces and the brutality of their death. Without succumbing to paralysis, I take what happened to them personally. How would it feel to be the son of 97-year-old Rose Mallinger or 88-year-old Melvin Wax, who emerged from his hiding place too early? In this moment I imagine that my own mother was one of those shot in the back of the head—as some were—and a flush of despair fills my chest.

You may accuse me of wallowing, but I consider such self-interrogation to be prayer, a way to honor the fellow human beings who have gone on to glory—or so I believe. Keeping a safe distance from Tree of Life amounts to giving wordless consent to the next massacre and all that makes it possible.

Being imaginatively present to my Jewish brothers and sisters would be beyond redemption but for the Gracious Mystery who accompanies me as I receive bottomless wounds, crevasses in beloved flesh. I’m accompanied throughout the task at hand: to announce, to myself if no one else, yet another holocaust among the quick and the dead.

III

Imagination is prayer, granting solace without neglecting reality. Imagination is prayer, a dream of healing and resurrection while confessing, “Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa!” Fist, again, three times to the breast.

I imagine Cecil Rosenthal. His face is the most real to me. He lived with his brother David for all of their adult lives. “Two mentally-handicapped men,” writes Paul Berman in Tablet. Cecil, 59. David, 54. The latter quiet, the former huge, gregarious, the life of the party.

My brothers, David and Cecil Rosenthal. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post Gazette)

Their lovely faces are without guile. God touches their cheeks, damp with tears of homecoming.

Cecil was Tree of Life’s official Torah bearer. He carried the scroll up and down the aisles so worshippers could touch the mantle with their tzizits (ritual fringes) or siddurs (prayer books) or hands, then kiss what has touched the mantle. Reverence and joy!

Outside of the synagogue community, observers may suppose that Cecil and David needed Tree of Life, but I bet my last dollar that every last congregant would say Tree of Life needed Cecil and David. Within the sacred, eyes see truths mystifying to the profane.

Now Cecil bears the Torah, walking slowly, pausing to receive my touch and witness my kiss. In this prayer, I realize that Cecil doesn’t need me so much as I need him. The word doesn’t need me. I need the word. I need Cecil to bring me the word. I’m broken.

I want to know how he and his brother died and where. I want to know if they were frightened, if they suffered, if their sweet smiles shone at the last. They were my brothers. I wonder.

IV

 I’m sorry, Cecil. I’m sorry, David. Oh, Lord, tell my brothers that I have something to say to them.

Mea culpa,” David Rosenthal. “I say to you, ‘Arise!'”

“Mea maxima culpa, Cecil Rosenthal. I say to you, ‘Arise! For love’s sake, hold before me the Torah. I have to do my part to clean up this mess, but I don’t even know where to begin. You know better than I. Bring me the Sacred Words, then return to your repose. You and David rest where you’ll be safe, once and for all.”

Tree of Life’s Richard Gottfried bearing the Torah. May Yahweh rest him. (Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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Why All This Crazy Killing? America’s Rights Addiction

Dear Friends,

The following essay first appeared under a different title on A Napper’s Companion in April of 2013. I had about -10 followers at that time, so my 2700+ words amounted to whistling into the wind. So I’m dusting off this old post, stripping it of photographs, and raising it up the flagpole again.

Why am I repeating myself? Yesterday morning, yet another kid walked into yet another classroom and started shooting, this time at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Add one more wretched absurdity to our national profile. This long, detail-heavy, occasionally sarcastic, probably boring rant still stands as my opinion of what ails America and has us paralyzed in the face of a shameful body count.

This is your last chance. Everything below the pizza is an absolute bummer. If you’re having a good day, save this for one when you’re already in a funk.

Love and peace,

John

800px-Pepperoni_pizza

“Hello, yes, I’d like to order a one-acre pizza with cheese, pepperoni, and mushrooms for pick up.” (Credit: Jon Sullivan on Wikimedia Commons)

In late January of 2013, a boy’s stunned, pale face greeted me on msn.com along with this headline: “Teen: horror movie inspired crime.” “Here we go again,” I thought, but clicked on horror anyway. If you don’t want to feel sick, don’t read on.

On October 3, 2012, Jake Evans (17) killed his sister Mallory (15) and mother Jami. In a four-page confession, Jake explained that he’d watched Rob Zombie’s 2007 remake of Halloween several times earlier in the week, and the movie got him thinking. “While watching it I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had. Afterward, I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone” (dailymail.co.uk). He planned to use a knife, but he thought some more: “If I were to kill my mom and Mallory, I wouldn’t want them to feel anything, so I decided to kill them both with the .22 revolver I stole from my Grandpa.”

Since Jake’s aim was sloppy, his sister died hard. He told the 911 dispatcher, “This is really going to mess me up in the future” and “I’m really worried about, like, nightmares and stuff like that. Are there any times [sic] of medications, and stuff?” Jake ends his written confession by summarizing all his stuff: “I know now though that I’m done with killing. It’s the most dreadful and terrifying thing I will ever experience. And what happened last night will haunt me forever” (dailymail.co.uk).

Jake still has family left, though he doesn’t want to see them. His father and two other sisters weren’t at home at the time of the killings. Red-headed Mallory looked like a cross country runner you’d see featured in the hometown newspaper. Jami appeared precisely forty-eight years old, probably wished God had given her more or a chin, and like many of us in middle age, carried a few surplus pounds; same with her husband. Jake looks like a lanky kid who’d help push your stalled car to the berm and say, “No problem.” His surviving sisters look like peas from the family pod. In short, the Evans were normal-looking, well-groomed white folk from the affluent Fort Worth suburb of Aledo.

Of course, something was amiss, with Jake if with nobody else. He had breathtaking mental illness. And yet, his 911 call and the last lines of his confession demonstrate a mindset that’s yanking America along as if by a nose ring: shooting his mother and sister was “dreadful and terrifying” for [Jake]; his sister’s screaming is really going to mess [Jake] up in the future; the experience “will haunt [Jake] forever.” The kid’s narcissism is glaring, but if we think the germ that was lethal in him isn’t making America sick, we’re kidding ourselves.

Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Jared Loughner, Sueng-Hoi Cho, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold: the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre isn’t the only American who has called them monsters and lunatics. It’s hard to blame folks for using these words, resonating as they do with our collective rage and dismay. The trouble with such labels, however, is they provide cover for us law-abiding citizens as we ignore our own inconspicuous lunacy. If we can put all Auroras at the feet of sick monsters with assault weapons, the rest of us can give ourselves a clean bill of health. Right?

I don’t think so. We Americans are rights junkies. Not all of us, of course, not even most of us, but the news is packed with stories of people who do lousy things simply because it’s their right. Many would argue that this addiction is healthy, even patriotic—Don’t Tread on Me! But rights, like all wholesome things, are best consumed in moderation.

Admit it: American’s don’t do moderation very well. We binge on practically everything. According to theweek.com, Americans consume 36,500 acres of pizza each year—that’s 1,327 Ellis Islands of pies; solutiondown.com spins the numbers differently, allotting each of us 23 pounds of pizza annually; we like fries even more, 29 pounds yearly. And we can’t get enough of ourselves either.  Smartmoney.com notes that in 2010 Americans spent $33.3 billion on cosmetics and other beauty products; oprah.com has us spending $10,677,415,674.00 on cosmetic procedures that same year. It’s an odd curse: we eat like pachyderms, but can’t stop looking in the mirror. Is it fair to say we Americans can be stuck on ourselves?

In The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude, Dr. P. M. Forni of Johns Hopkins University explains what happens when stuck on myself evolves into sucks to be you: “When the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization turns into self-absorption, other people can lose their intrinsic value in our eyes and become mere means to the fulfillment of our needs and desires.”

Jake Evans’ confession and 911-transcript are part of the story of extreme mental illness, but his me-me-me thinking poses questions to the rest of us garden-variety neurotics: Has “the healthy pursuit of self-interest and self-realization” in America turned into “self-absorption”? And have other people lost “their intrinsic value in our eyes”? I think so and suggest that our narcissism has combined with a lust for individual rights to create a super virus. What we the people are allowed to do with constitutional protection has become what we should to do with a clear conscience. The result: our sense of individual rights has become perverted.

Most of the studies I’ve come across on the rise of narcissism pin the problem on young people, which may explain why some of the mass murderers of late are committed by males in their teens or early twenties. The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, which received lots of attention when it came out in 2010, claims that narcissism is as prevalent among college students as obesity. And according to the American Freshman Survey, published yearly by the Higher Education Research Institution at UCLA, narcissism among young people is at a fifty-year high (dailycaller.com). Like Dr. Jim Taylor, however, I think our problem cuts across age groups. In “Narcissism: On the Rise in America?” he writes, “The indifference, egotism, disrespect and lack of consideration that are central to narcissism are also reflective of the increasingly polarized and vitriolic tone of our current body politic, recent unethical corporate behavior, the rise in cheating among students in school and the gamut of bad behavior among professional athletes” (huffingtonpost.com).

The statistics may say that young people are this country’s leading narcissists, but as Taylor suggests, you need only look around to see that all generations are getting in on the fun. And by fun I mean, morally scurvy behavior that’s technically legal. The United States of America is by definition a country of freedom, which means that people who exercise their rights without a sense of responsibility are protected. So be it. Telling a child he’ll never amount to anything is free speech. I don’t think you’re legally bound to correct the waiter or waitress who leaves that shrimp scampi off your bill. You can invest in a company that makes life a misery for its employees—it’s probably profitable. We can’t go ten minutes without tripping over a right.

Nancy Lanza was within her rights to amass the arsenal that her son put to sinister use. So were the Pennsylvanians who, according to pennlive.com, responded to Sandy Hook by purchasing 133,241 firearms in December of 2012 (versus 84,486 in December of 2011). No law stands in the way of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. Interested in making a great deal of money? Market a video game like Activision’s Call of Duty.

There’s no proof that repeated viewings of Halloween enticed Jake Evans to kill his mother and sister. And while pilots frequently hone their skills on flight simulators, nobody can prove that Adam Lanza’s endless hours spent in his boy cave pretending to cut enemies down in Call of Duty had anything to do with his massacre of the innocents in Newtown (nypost.com). If you believe Wayne LaPierre, the solution to gun violence is more guns; all teachers ought to be packing.

Of course, in the middle of acres of rights exercised out of simple greed and selfishness, serious artists take heat for legitimately challenging us. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was protested by theologically constipated Christians, but I found the film thoughtful and daring. Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic photography unsettles me, but I suspect that was part of his purpose. Defending his “Piss Christ” photograph, Andres Serrano challenges Christians to consider the full horror of the crucifixion (guardian.co.uk.com). Anne Sexton’s poetry is graphic, but if ever I trusted that a poet was burning to get human beings to acknowledge her particular experience, I trust Sexton.

I trust the authenticity of Scorsese, Mapplethorpe, Sexton, et. al., but I don’t trust those who accept no responsibility in consideration of their right to free speech. That doesn’t mean I’m about censoring them. But trust them, respect them? No. (Point of clarification: if you could walk into a movie theater, kill twelve people and wound fifty-eight others with a poem, I’d favor some poem control. But the poets and serious artists I know aren’t the shrill voices in America’s rights-binge debate, and Mapplethorpe’s photographs, as far as I know, never led anyone to massacre others with whips and fists.)

For reasons I don’t understand, reading about Mallory and Jami Evans so soon after Sandy Hook has proven my tipping point, my enough moment. Since I first saw Jake Evans, another young face has looked out from msn.com. Somebody please show me a sweeter-looking kid than Hadiya Pendleton, the fifteen-year-old Chicago honor student who was shot and killed days after performing with her school band at Obama’s inauguration. Michael Ward (18) and Kenneth Williams (20) apparently thought Hadiya was part of a gang trespassing on their turf, so Ward fired into her group of friends huddled in a bus stop, and Williams drove the getaway car (usnews.nbcnews.com).

It’s actually odd that these gangbangers were caught. According to nation.time.com, “In 2012, 506 people were killed in [Chicago]. Only 25% of those murders were solved.” Obviously hundreds of people with faces less lovely than Pendleton’s are being cut down, plenty of them kids who aren’t in school bands. And the trouble is, so many are dying coast to coast that we the people are at our wits’ end. It’s been about three months since Adam Lanza opened fire, and slate.com estimates that another 2,605 people have been shot and killed. (Update: as of April 19, 2013, the number stands at 3,526.) (Update: as of April 15, 2015, we were at 82,033.)

The Violence Policy Center, a pro-gun control organization, notes that in 2012, there were “31,326 gun-related deaths nationwide” (slate.com). That’s 10.9 of every 100,000 citizens. So what explains the roughly 1,119 Sandy Hooks of various denominations we had in the United States in 2012? Nobody seems willing to contemplate, much less admit, any personal responsibility for or even indirect participation in the carnage.

Don’t blame the NRA. Wayne LaPierre and company are only protecting Americans’ Second Amendment rights. In 1999, the NRA ran an ad in USA Today stating, “We believe it’s reasonable to provide for instant background checks at gun shows, just like gun stores and pawn shops.” Now it’s Charlton Heston all the way: you can have my gun when you pry it “from my cold, dead hands.”

Don’t blame James Wan, director of the 2004 film Saw. (In one scene, a young guy has sixty seconds to dig a key out from behind his eyeball or a mask of nails called a Venus Fly Trap will snap shut, with unfortunate results; I won’t ruin it for you.) Don’t be too hard on Tom Six for his 2009 First Amendment tour de force, The Human Centipede. (How are the three humans in this bug sewn together? Imagine the worst.) Rob Zombie was only commenting honestly when he said in a vanityfair.com interview, “I don’t think my movies have a lesson. Or if they do, I guess it’s that it’s a f—ed up world and you’re probably f—ed too.” Nobody in this genre of the film-making industry is at fault; watching folks lose their intrinsic value in tormented, demeaning ways can do viewers no harm.

Don’t blame Rockstar Games for producing Grand Theft Auto or Activision for Call of Duty or parents for letting their kids play with these killing simulators. The latter’s Modern Warfare 3 grossed $775,000 in its first five days on the shelves—that’s over ¾ of a billion sweet expressions of free speech (guardian.co.uk). And about the former, one video game enthusiast tells me that you—you being, say, an eleven-year-old boy—can hire a prostitute, have your way with her, shoot her, take your money back, then speed off to other adventures. No matter. The Entertainment Software Association assures us that “years of extensive research . . . has shown no connection between entertainment and real-life violence” (newyork.newsday.com). (So you don’t think I’m pretending to be guiltless, I’ve let violent games and movies into my home. I regret that.)

Don’t blame citizens who reject outright the possibility that even the most miniscule limitations placed on weapons and magazines might save a life or two. Restrictions only punish law-abiding gun owners. Besides, any more gun control measures will shove America down a slippery slope, resulting in the Second Amendment falling off the constitutional cliff.

In short, as long as my DNA isn’t on the AR-15, I’m acquitted. As long as nobody can put me at the scene of the crime, I’m behaving like a responsible citizen. This is the epidemic logic of our time. It’s also the self-absorbed reasoning of a rights junkie.

It should not, however, be the reasoning of unselfish citizens of conscience. When deciding whether to exercise a right, I should consider how my constitutionally protected words or actions might impact others, whether I know them or not. Rights and responsibilities have to be held in healthy tension.

Bud McKelvey of Hermitage, Pennsylvania, strikes a nice balance. His February 7, 2013 letter to the editor of the Erie Times-News, two excerpts of which I share here, is encouraging: “When I bought my first pistol, I was told that there was a five-day waiting period before I could get my gun. The five days were to check my background. The exact words I told the gun dealer were ‘I don’t care if it takes you a month. I have nothing to worry about.’” And “I’m a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, they didn’t have weapons that could fire 600 rounds a minute, and at the time, the British had their soldiers quartered in the colonies. Naturally, they wanted everyone to be able to keep and bear arms. They didn’t mean for people to be able to slaughter their neighbors and groups of people.”

Bud McKelvey understands that, to paraphrase an old high school Problems of Democracy teacher, his rights end where his neighbor’s nose begins. “And who is my neighbor?” It takes only a small leap of compassion to recognize that my neighbors live not only next door, but in Newtown and Aurora and beyond. “Am I my brother’s and sister’s keeper?” Bloody right I am! I envision the faces of my many friends and family members whose spiritual beliefs are all over the map, and while they may not agree entirely with my argument here, I bet they’d answer Cain’s question as I do. Most Americans probably would, too: I am my sister’s and brother’s keeper. If I have to ask whether somebody is my neighbor, I already have the answer. Most Americans, not necessarily those with the loudest voices, know this.

At last, then, I land in a naïve, idealistic place. No matter what legislation sneaks through Washington, our body count will be disconcerting until our national rights binge abates. Before speaking freely, I ought to wonder whether my message might unnecessarily harm others. Before demanding unlimited access to weapons with frightening power, I could acknowledge that some limits are reasonable. It wouldn’t make for safe and sane roads if I could put a GE90-115B jet engine in my Mazda 4×4; a magazine with a 100-round capacity poses the same kind of hazard. Before doing anything at all, I should ask myself if my words or actions are in any way helpful, challenging, or constructive.

In land of the free and the home of the brave, our greatest patriots are often those who decide, for the sake of the common good, to refrain now and then from exercising their constitutional rights.