November 16, 2018

Beyond Charleston: All lives matter

As moving as it was to see the national reaction of grief, sadness and outrage at the horrific mass killing that occurred at a Black church in Charleston last week, there was something that bothered me.

What about all the other victims of homicide throughout America who are murdered each day in more routine circumstances? Do their lives matter any less? Don’t they deserve equal attention?

It’s true that circumstances do matter, and that there’s something unusually abhorrent about murdering people in a house of worship, especially when those murders hearken back to a dark chapter in our nation’s history. The Charleston attack re-enacts a long history of violent acts against Black churches in that region, striking an ugly nerve in our nation’s consciousness.

It reminds us that racism still roams the land. 

We want to feel that the aftershocks of slavery are behind us, that those scenes of white police officers assaulting Blacks during the civil rights era are behind us, that Ku Klux Klan members no longer want to lynch Blacks, that we’re now so much more civilized. So, when something happens that connects us to our shameful past, we go a little nuts, and the media go a little crazy. 

It makes sense — I get it.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that with all the attention we have showered on the Charleston victims, we have abandoned countless others across the country, people such as Steven Delatorre, Kevin Ross, Kelly Burrell, Sam L. Johnson, Demetrius M. Peebles, Devonte Terry, David Martinez Jr., Lynell Simmons, Laurance Boyd and others among the 35 people killed in Chicago just this month alone. 

Like all of the victims of Charleston, most of those Chicago victims are Black. Tragically, according to Fact Checker, an estimated 16 Blacks are killed every day across the United States, not by white cops or white racists, but by other Blacks. 

Let’s face it: It’s a lot easier to scream, “Gun control!” and “Remove the Confederate flag!” than it is to roll up our sleeves and deal with the complicated root causes of gun violence.

Equally tragic is the fact that these killings don’t generate much attention for the simple reason that their circumstances are not extraordinary.

This is human nature. We are wired to respond to extremes. The very notion of a mass killing is bad enough, let alone a mass killing with a racist motive. It’s outrage on top of outrage.

And yet, Judaism teaches us to transcend our nature — to transcend our visceral emotions and seek out core truths. One of those core truths is that every human being is created in the image of God. In America, this core truth is expressed in the sacred declaration that “all men are created equal.”

This is a difficult truth to live by, because, all too often, we simply don’t feel it. After all, is the life of a gang member “equal” to the life of a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg?

Are the lives of people murdered while praying in a South Carolina church equal to the lives of people murdered while committing a drug deal in Chicago?

Our tradition compels us to do what doesn’t come naturally, like turn our attention to the victims of everyday killings that the media generally ignore.

It is precisely because those victims are so easily overlooked that we must scream out their names as loudly as possible.

Let’s face it: It’s a lot easier to scream, “Gun control!” and “Remove the Confederate flag!” than it is to roll up our sleeves and deal with the complicated root causes of gun violence. Sensible gun control is always a good idea, but it’s hardly the same as reducing urban blight, improving education, inculcating civic values and instilling hope.

Last year, over the Fourth of July weekend, 82 people were shot in Chicago and 14 people died, including two boys, ages 14 and 16. The year before, 70 people were shot and 13 died during the same four-day stretch.

Does anyone expect this summer to be any better?

Here’s what I’d love to see: President Obama calling a press conference on July 6, and reciting the names of every victim who perished that weekend in his beloved Chicago.

His message ought to be: “We will seek justice for all those who are killed every day across America, regardless of race, ethnicity or circumstance, and I will fight to improve the conditions that lead to this violence in the first place. We must never forget that in our great country, all lives matter.”

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at