Note: This op-ed article was written before Sunday’s mass shooting at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killed 26 people, including children.
The weeks have passed and the headlines have moved on, but I can’t stop thinking about the horrible massacre in Las Vegas on Oct. 1. And what haunts me is not just the carnage at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, but the reaction, which reeked of “learned helplessness,” a psychological term that describes a phenomenon in which people accept difficult situations from which they could extricate themselves.
Those who demanded action were accused of “politicizing” the tragedy — as if inaction were apolitical. There has been no hint of federal government action that would prevent more Americans from being sitting ducks to a madman with a gun. (The bump stock ban bill in Congress has apparently stalled, though Massachusetts has become the first state to ban the accessories that turn semi-automatic weapons into rapid-fire machine guns.) We were all outraged but we have no doubt that this will happen again. We just pray that, when it does, it won’t happen to us or our loved ones in particular, and we plow ahead, accepting our fate.
The ubiquitous and profuse offers of prayers offered after a tragedy puts the shooting into a religious rhetorical frame. And many pro-gun pundits and officials described the massacre as “pure evil.” Yes, the murderous act was indeed evil, but the constant repetition of that word by politicians seemed to place the issue, implicitly, in some sort of cosmic realm. So when pundits stressed the “evil” of the Las Vegas shooting, behind the words they were virtually saying: there’s nothing we can do about that kind of evil except pray.
I don’t mean to suggest, however, that the “do-nothing-on-gun-violence” politicians struggle from learned helplessness. If they did, they would extend the complacent logic of inescapable evil to other realms of policy — but they never do. A striking example came from Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, who tweeted that those asking for politicians to “do something” were wrong because “you can’t regulate evil.”
Can’t we? Isn’t virtually every law on the books a way of regulating evil? Shall we stop counterterrorism or organized crime investigations because “we can’t regulate evil”? Terrorism, drug trafficking, illegal immigration (especially the last, according to many of the same politicians) and countless other issues are defined not as cosmic evil but as problems that policy can address. Only when it comes to mass shootings and gun violence (by white Christians) do we lift our arms to the sky and say it’s “pure evil” and something we just “can’t regulate.” Had the weapon been a bomb, or had the shooter been an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim, we would have rushed to decisive action, but in the case of mass shootings by white Christians we shrug, we offer prayers, and call it “the price of freedom.” (Note: The White House reaction to the tragic truck bombing in New York, focused on pledges to tighten immigration restrictions rather than attribute the attack to “evil.”)
No, it isn’t the leaders who inconsistently mouth these platitudes who are paralyzed with learned helplessness. It’s the electorate that lets them get away with it.
Jewish tradition revolts against the notion that there’s nothing we can do to stop evil. Moreover, God seems to make clear that God will only intervene after humans take responsibility and act. A midrash, for example, tells us that the waters of the Red Sea didn’t part until Nachshon Ben Aminadav first plunged into the waves. The notion of tikkun olam — not in its modern incarnation as social justice but in its traditional meaning — indicates an active partnership between humanity and God to rid the world of evil.
In Judaism, there’s no predestination. Humans influence their own fates. The very day before the Las Vegas shooting, Jews at Yom Kippur services everywhere contradicted the “thoughts and prayers” paradigm our leaders offer us — not by replacing prayer, but by adding to it. In “Unetane Tokef” we proclaim that “teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah” (introspection, prayer and acts of justice) can change our fate. For Jews, prayer without action is meaningless, and the idea of human freedom and responsibility flies in the face of “learned helplessness.” We have both the liberty and the obligation to act, and to remember that we are never helpless, that there’s always something we can do to stop evil from conquering the world. The Torah commands us not to stand by idly in the face of suffering.
Indifference, said Elie Wiesel, is “what makes the human being inhuman.”
Likewise, Judaism teaches us to reject the pagan idea that the deaths in Las Vegas — like those in Newtown, Aurora, Columbine — are “the price of freedom” — a necessary sacrifice. I say “pagan” because Judaism, like all monotheist religions, finds human sacrifice abhorrent. “Do not permit any of your children to be offered as a sacrifice to Molech, for you must not profane the name of the Lord,” says Leviticus. Because the Torah also understood that those who speak of sacrificing human lives to the cause always refer to the lives of others, not their own.
This is not a partisan statement, but a spiritual and moral one. If I risk “politicizing” a tragedy by calling for action, I would politicize it with silence, too. America has 35 times more gun-related death than other developed countries. So it’s clear what inaction means: death. Stand where you want on the political spectrum, but never, confronted with an evil, offer mere prayers. Judaism teaches us to transform sympathy into action and outrage into commitment.
The people who coined the phrase “never again” must teach the world that this slogan is not just an expression of wishful thinking but a commitment to action. Learned helplessness is an insult to our capacity to do good in the world, to our power to defeat evil. It’s a slap in the face of the same God to whom those empty prayers are addressed.
Andres Spokoiny is president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.