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Columnist Karen Gardner: The weight of words

  • In this Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 photo, a Nov. 10, 1938 photo from the AP Archive showing by Nazis destroyed Jewish shops at the Kurfuerstendamm street, is placed at the same location 80 years later in Berlin. On Nov. 9, 1938 Jews and their holdings were attacked across Nazi Germany - also known as Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass.. AP PHOTO/Markus Schreiber

Published: 11/14/2018 8:21:41 AM

The opposition party did something stupendous last week. In the midterm elections, it took back control of the House, restoring some balance and oversight to our federal government.

But it only happened because of the efforts of millions of grassroots activists who worked diligently and tirelessly to elect a diverse, progressive slate of candidates whose policies will benefit the vast majority of the people of this country, not just the few at the top.

On the other side of the partisan divide, the president, echoed by his minions, campaigned on a theme of hatred and division. He inflamed his supporters’ fears with lies about evil Democrats who want to ruin this country, and he demonized those “others” who aren’t white like them. 

I know I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: Words matter, and the words that the president uses to stir up his followers are dangerous. Those words have power; they may start out as ephemeral things, but eventually they take on weight and become hate-filled graffiti or ugly false memes online. Sooner or later, they become fists and nooses, bullets and fire. 

In the two weeks leading up to the elections, we saw several acts of violence specifically targeting Trump critics, African Americans, and Jews. To claim that the president’s words are unrelated to these acts is simply absurd.

This past Friday marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when Jewish men, by the tens of thousands, were arrested throughout Germany and sent to concentration camps; Jewish-owned businesses and homes were ransacked and destroyed, along with 267 synagogues burned and looted. It was “The Night of Broken Glass,” the night that historians consider the beginning of the Holocaust. Life for Germany’s Jewish citizens had been increasingly difficult beginning in 1933, but the violence truly began on Kristallnacht.

I bring this up because a week and a half before the midterm elections, a man walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during Shabbat services and shot to death 11 congregants while wounding six others. His stated reasons for his actions, according to the SWAT officers who arrested him, were that “They’re committing genocide to my people,” and “I just want to kill Jews.”

The shooter had with him a semi-automatic rifle and three hand guns, and police found several other legally registered weapons in his apartment. Why, please tell me, would anyone need to have that many weapons of mass destruction, which is exactly what they are, in their possession? In comments after the shooting, the president didn’t blink at this fact; rather he suggested that those elderly Jewish worshippers should have been armed to protect themselves.

And wouldn’t that be great for the gun industry, which would earn millions of dollars selling more guns to everyone? Yes, we need more guns to protect us from those people with guns. But then, everyone will have guns, and before we know it, we’ll all be taking shots at everyone else because we’ll be so terrified of being shot. 

The president also told us that to fix the out-of-control killing spree that infects this nation, we should increase the use of the death penalty. I guess he hadn’t read the details of the latest massacre that occurred just last week in Thousand Oaks, California, where after killing 12 people in a bar, the shooter killed himself. Clearly the threat of the death penalty wouldn’t have mattered much to him, now would it?

So, how are we to understand this massacre of Jews in their synagogue, believed to be the deadliest attack against the Jewish community in U.S. history, by a violent anti-Semite a week before the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night that marked the beginning of the Holocaust in which more than 6 million Jews were systematically murdered? Investigators found that the shooter wrote regularly on Gab, a white supremacist-friendly social media site, on which he posted screeds against Jews and Muslims.

Hating Jews and Muslims isn’t enough for this man; he also expressed his fear of the “dangerous” caravan of Central Americans that is headed to the U.S. through Mexico. In reality, the people in this caravan, traveling on foot, consisting of many women and children, are escaping violence in their home countries and are desperately seeking asylum. But the shooter called them “invaders” and believed they are coming to the U.S. to commit violent acts.  

Now where would he get that idea? Perhaps from the rhetoric coming straight out of the mouth of our president who, while whipping up his supporters at one of his campaign rallies, told them without any evidence, that there were “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” heading to our border. His allies jumped right in to point out, again with no evidence, that the caravan is being organized and funded by the Right’s favorite boogey man, George Soros.  

Soros is a wealthy philanthropist and progressive. But he’s also Jewish, and that fits right in with the long-held false narrative that Jews are somehow secretly controlling all the money and running the world with evil intent and they must be stopped. 

And Mr. Soros was nearly “stopped.” Shortly before the massacre at the synagogue, a Trump supporter and white nationalist mailed a pipe bomb to Soros and to 11 Democratic politicians and Trump critics. Fortunately, none went off.

But the message is clear. Just as it was in the run up to Kristallnacht.

The president’s words matter, his followers believe them, and they have and will turn those words into violent acts as has happened so many times in the past.

The time to stop it is now, before it’s too late.

Karen Gardner, of Haydenville, a retired computer programmer, is a bird watcher, nature photographer and ukulele player. She can be reached at

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