The Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting – and a Short Story (part 2 of 2)

The Curmudgeon doesn’t think of himself as a pacifist.  Oh, he abhors war and violence and all that stuff, but where he parts company with true pacifists is his belief that there ARE some things worth fighting for.

He suspects that most people, including some who might casually consider themselves pacifists, would agree.  Whether it’s your child being harassed at the playground or your spouse at the diner, a country slaughtering innocents for the crime of being born a different race or religion or gender or tribe, there are times when we turn the other cheek and times when we decide that we have to take a stand and fight back.

A madman sending bombs to former presidents?  Another madman walking into a house of worship and shooting every person he encounters?  A kid with a grudge walking into an elementary school?  A homophobe entering a gay nightclub with guns blazing?  A university student who knew he had violent tendencies and had sought professional help for them climbing into the observation deck atop a building’s tower with his rifle and just randomly shooting anonymous people for no particular reason?

At what point do people decide to stop wringing their hands and start fighting back and take matters into their own hands?

More than a few years ago The Curmudgeon considered this problem in a work of fiction that is particularly relevant this week because the subject of this short story is anti-Semitism and the question it addresses is that of deciding when to continue turning one’s cheek and when to fight back.  The following is a work of fiction about a group of teenagers who tackled such a dilemma – and what they decided.

 

*            *            *

 

“The Finger”

Two boys carried trays full of high school cafeteria food and sat down with their peers at a long table in a large room full of many rows of many long tables.

“Did you hear about Danny Schneider?” one of the other boys asked them before they could even move their first bite of chicken fingers into their mouths.

“No, what?”

“They got him in the boys room in the 240 hall after eighth period yesterday.”

“Bad?”

“Not too bad.  They hit him in the ribs a few times and tried to kick him in the balls, but he covered up pretty well.”

“Did they say anything?”

“They told him he should transfer to the school with the rest of his tribe and leave this place to them and their people.”

“Was he alone?”

“Yeah.”

“Dammit, he should know better.”

“I don’t think he had much of a choice. It was after eighth period, most of us go home after seventh, but Danny has an eighth period class twice a week.”

“Well, he could’ve grabbed someone to go in with him.  Anyone would have done it for him.”

A new voice sounded from the far end of the table.

“We shouldn’t have to ask for help to go to the bathroom.  We don’t need someone to hold our pee-pees for us.  This is our school, too.”

“So what’re we going to do about it?”

No one spoke.

The boys were fighting an epidemic of violence in their own school and in their own community.  Everywhere they went they met with anger, hatred, and either the threat of violence or the reality of it.  The playground now was virtually off-limits unless they could muster a group of at least twenty, for self-protection, and the main neighborhood shopping center was becoming dangerous.  Even the library – a place none of their tormentors ever actually entered – was becoming a risky destination because it was a place they were known to frequent.  Recently, some of those tormentors had taken to hanging out there, waiting for potential victims, so the boys now preferred to ride a bus to a different library in a safer but more distant neighborhood.

Their tormentors were becoming bolder, too. They now sometimes waited at the major intersections near the area’s last remaining synagogue late on Saturday mornings, and any boy walking past them wearing a necktie was likely to face some combination of taunts, expletives, pushes, and the occasional punch.

Of all the places, school had become the least comfortable.  Danny Schneider was jostled in a bathroom, and in truth, he really did have only himself to blame:  he should have known better than to enter such a place alone and to isolate himself as he had.  The gym locker room was a similar hazard, and the boys – most of the fifty or sixty in a school of about 2500 students – had organized to have their locker assignments changed so that none of them had to dress alone.  Gym classes themselves were a major hazard as well:  any sport that involved any degree of physical contact – and many that ordinarily did not – provided an officially sanctioned opportunity for a barely-outside-the-rules elbow in the ribs, kick in the shin, or knee to the groin.

And then there were the ever-present middle fingers.  Everywhere they turned, it seemed, their tormentors taunted them with a digital display of their disdain.  Frequently it was a direct, in-your-face wave in a hallway, a study hall, or a classroom when a teacher’s back was turned.  More often, it was a subtler display – one designed to avoid detection by their teachers and other school authorities:  a quick rearrangements of fingers on a hand carrying a book so that only one was visible; a chin propped upon a hand with a single finger pointing skyward; that same single finger extended as they held their hands over their hearts while reciting the pledge of allegiance during assembly.

Nothing the boys attempted helped them solve their problem.  They sought transfers to a school in a neighborhood with more of “their people” but their requests were rejected; they – and their parents – spoke to the school principal, who angrily denied that his school had any such problem; they spoke to a sympathetic newspaper columnist who was willing to write about their dilemma yet warned that doing so might result in an escalation of the abuse, not a cessation, leading them to ask her not to tell their story after all; and some tried fighting back, but those who did were both outmuscled and outnumbered.

They also took steps to attract less attention to themselves within the school:  they stopped raising their hands in class, dropped out of most extra-curricular activities, and resigned from the student council; even the school’s highest-scoring basketball player quit the team.  But when the school orchestra lost most its string section, the school paper folded, and the debate team withdrew from city-wide competition, they only alienated the last of their protectors – the faculty – and their problems increased.

Efforts outside the school proved similarly futile.  When one of their parents approached a school board member during high holiday services, that official told them that he was up for renomination in three months and could not afford to alienate the mayor, whom he knew to be unsympathetic; when they approached the city’s human relations commission, they were literally laughed at by staff members who had no interest in helping a handful of white, heterosexual, American-born, middle-class boys; and the local branch of the anti-defamation league promised to look into the matter – and six months after this promise, apparently was still looking.

One Sunday, two of the boys decided to attend a weekly flea market at the area’s largest outdoor shopping center. It was a huge event: several acres of parking lot hosting dozens of vendors selling the exercise equipment they had never used, the clothing their children had outgrown, the books they had started but never finished, and the small electric appliances that had long collected dust in their kitchen cabinets.

As the two boys walked up and down the aisles of tables, they came upon a table at which nothing was being sold. Instead, atop the table sat three piles of pamphlets with a star of David on their cover and entitled “Conspiracy of the Elders of Zion.”  One of the boys discreetly picked up a copy and they quickly walked away. Now off to the side, they turned page after page and read about how “their people” controlled the world’s banks and media, helped blacks and Hispanics, and were turning the country liberal and how their rabbis used the blood of Christian children to make holiday crackers.

They were appalled, and one of the boys was angry.  Without consulting his friend, he stormed back to the table; his friend trailed behind, scurrying to keep pace.

“Have you read what you’re passing out?” he asked angrily.

“Yeah,” said the young man behind the table. There were three men standing behind the table, all broad and at least six feet tall, all with hair cropped close to their skulls, all wearing green Army-style jackets.  All appeared to be about twenty years old.

“What of it?” he replied.

“Don’t you think it’s a little out of line?” the smaller boy asked.

“The truth is never out of line. Sometimes the truth hurts some people, but there’s no escaping it and it must be heard.”

“Could I ask you to please stop passing them out?” the boy persisted.

“You can ask all you want, Sammy, but I ain’t moving.  This is America, we have a constitution, and you and your people haven’t taken away all of our rights yet.  Us white Christians still have some rights left, you know.”

The boy reached for the middle pile of pamphlets, but one of the larger men standing behind the table grabbed his wrist and began to twist it.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, little guy.  Unless you two are willing to take on the three of us right now, I suggest that you get back on your tricycles, go get some corned beef, and then go tell your mommies about what the big bullies did to you.”

*      *      *

Three weeks later the boys gathered across the river with fraternity mates from throughout the region.  It was an annual tradition:  a Christmas-day conclave of both their fraternity and its affiliated sorority.  It was a day-long event, an attempt to find something fun, interesting, and constructive to do on a day on which they had few entertainment options.  The group took over an entire community center building, and throughout the day, they swam, danced, played basketball and volleyball, flirted, and talked to old friends and made new ones.

The plight of the boys from the changing neighborhood in Philadelphia had gradually become known throughout the organization, and in a room normally used for day-care activities, about twenty boys gathered to discuss the situation.  Sitting astride tiny, brightly colored plastic chairs, straddling hobby horses, and reclining under posters of cartoon characters, they talked about the problems and their unsuccessful attempts to address them.  Some of the boys played idly with the toys as they talked; a few tossed nerf balls across the room while they listened. Occasionally, other people wandered into and out of the room.

At one point, just as they were discussing the ever-present middle fingers, a tall, slender, dark-skinned boy with bright eyes entered the room and sat on the floor in the corner.  As the discussion turned to a fight outside the public library and the harassment of girls at a department store, the tall boy mumbled something.  A few heads turned his way.  Then, when the boys described the recent encounter at the flea market, the boy in the corner raised his voice and spoke in strong, accented tones that everyone could hear.

“Don’t be such wimps,” he declared.  “You have no one to blame but yourselves. Our people have faced abuse like this for 6000 years, and we’ve only found one thing that works to combat it: we have to fight back.”

A few boys rolled their eyes; others looked down.

“You think it can’t be done?” the boy continued.  “I tell you it can – and that you have no choice.”

“Look at us,” one of the boys objected. “There aren’t that many of us, and we’re not exactly built for this.  We’re raised to study, not to fight.  There are too many of them.  We’d get slaughtered.”

“Nonsense,” the dark boy said, his accent just heavy enough that some of the boys had to strain to understand him.

“We’re raised to survive.  Study is a luxury we get to enjoy only if we succeed.

“Look, I’m not from here, so I don’t want to tell you what to do.  My name is Yuri Grossman and I came here from Israel three years ago, and over there, we’ve never let being smaller and outnumbered get in our way.

“You’re right:  one on one we’re probably no match for them.  But we have all those brains you talked about, and there are other ways, including making sure that you never get caught one on one.”

He paused.

“And then there are some drastic, pre-emptive measures you can take that just might scare the hell out of them and stop this whole nonsense in a hurry.”

“What?” someone asked.

“The fewer people involved, the better. The three at the flea market, they’re there every week?”

“Yes,” someone replied.

“Good,” he said.  “Then I need about fifteen of you who are willing to fight and maybe get a bloody nose, and of that fifteen, I need four or five who have real balls and are willing to do more.  I also need the two who talked to the guys at the flea market. And if any of you have a father or relative who’s a dentist, that would be helpful, too.  The rest of you will have nothing to do with this and will know nothing.

“So, who’s in?”

The boys looked around sheepishly.  No one moved.

“Anyone?  Or do you want to spend the rest of high school holding your water and having people give you the finger?”

One boy stood.

“Count me in.”

Another followed.

“Me, too.”

It took a few minutes, but eventually, there were the fifteen boys that Yuri requested.  Eight attended the school with the problems; the rest were from other communities, including some affluent places.

“Everybody else out,” Yuri said.  “Forget you were here.”

The others left; some were shaking their heads skeptically.  Of the half-dozen girls who had wandered into the room during the discussion, half looked at Yuri admiringly and half with disdain, recognizing that his intentions were distasteful to them.

When the door closed behind the last departing person, Yuri spoke again.

“How many of you are willing to fight and how many are willing to go further?”

At first no one spoke, but then one boy did, asking what the others were thinking but reluctant to ask.

“We’re not going to kill anybody, are we?”

“No.  It’s not necessary.  We can accomplish what we want without going that far.”

Within minutes, Yuri had more than enough volunteers.  Once that was settled, he announced, “Boys, I’ll need to see the place where they’re handing out those booklets, but let me give you an idea of what I’ve got planned for the fellows with the middle fingers.”

*      *      *

Two weeks later, the two boys who had first come upon the pamphlet distributors at the flea market returned to the scene of that encounter.

“Remember us?” asked the boy who had spoken the first time.

“Yeah,” one of them replied.  “It’s Sammy and his kosher companion.  What do you want?”

“I want to ask you the same thing I asked you last time:  please stop distributing those pamphlets.”

The man laughed.

“You hear that, guys?  He said ‘please.’  I guess that’s supposed to make a difference.  No, little man, forget it.”

Like before, the boy reached for the pile, and again like before, one of the boys seized his wrist.

“Unless you’re willing to rumble, I suggest you walk away, Sammy.”

The boy responded as he had been instructed.

“If that’s what you want, you’ve got it. Just you and me, behind the dumpsters outside the pool hall down at the other end of the shopping center, in a half-hour.”

The men laughed.

“You and me?  You’ve got to be kidding.”

“If you’re afraid, we don’t have to, but I’m tired of your crap, and the only reason I don’t go after you now is that there are too many witnesses out here and I don’t want to go to jail for what I’m going to do to you.”

Again the men laughed.

“Big talk for a little boy.  Okay, you want your ass kicked, I’ll kick it for you.  A half-hour from now down by the dumpsters near the pool hall.”

“Don’t chicken out,” the boy said as he turned away.

*      *      *

Twenty-five minutes later the boy stood, alone, by the dumpsters.  A long way off, about 300 yards away, he saw someone walking toward him.

“Here he comes, Yuri,” he said, although no one was visible.

“Any weapons?” came a voice from behind the dumpsters.

“Nothing I can see,” the boy said, looking directly at Yuri, who sat on his haunches among six other boys hiding behind the dumpsters.

“Dammit, Evan, don’t look at me!  He’s not stupid – you want him to know we’re here?”

“Sorry.”

“Then shut up so he doesn’t see you talking.”

The boy, terrified, collected himself and stared straight at the man, now fifty yards away.  He then glanced quickly at a van that was parked parallel to the fence.

“I’ve gotta admit, kid, I’m surprised to see you here.  You’re stupid, but you got a pair on  you.”

As coached, Evan slowly took five steps backward, as if in fear, ensuring that the man would never reach him.

As the man came even with the dumpster, three cars simultaneously blocked the alley about 200 yards to the east and three more cars pulled out to block the alley about 30 yards to the west.

Quickly, six boys jumped out from behind the dumpsters and surrounded the man.  They quickly immobilized him, and one boy came behind him and placed a chloroform-soaked handkerchief over his mouth.  He struggled briefly, and when he could struggle no more, the boys dragged him into the van.  As soon as the van started to move, the cars blocking the east and west ends of the alley abandoned their positions.

Ten minutes later, with their hostage still unconscious, the van pulled into a city park – an area that on a spring or summer day would have been teeming with people but that on this winter day had not seen a human footstep in weeks.  As the van pulled up the road, two cars approached right behind it to block the path from other traffic.

As soon as the van stopped, the rear doors opened and two boys climbed down.  They grabbed the feet of their prisoner and started to pull away while two boys followed, holding his arms.  They carried him about 300 yards off the path and into a wooded area and set him down on the ground.  The fresh, cold air almost immediately began to revive him, and as he started to stir, Yuri said “Masks.”  The boys quickly pulled ski masks down over their faces.

That was the last word Yuri spoke; he knew that with his accent he ran a risk, albeit a slight one, of being identified later.

As the man stirred, Yuri and another boy held his bound legs; two other boys held his similarly bound arms.  The prisoner started to speak when a fifth boy, standing in front of him with a canvas bag in his hand, spoke.

“Now’s a time for me to talk and you to listen, you got that?” he began.

“You can scream if you want, but we’re a quarter mile deep in the woods a half mile from the street and it’s January, so there’s no one around to hear you.

“We know who you are.  We know you’re one of the people who hand out the pamphlets, but we also know that you’re one of the people who hassle us at the mall, the library, the playground, and anywhere else we want to go.

“And we also know that you’re one of the guys who’s always flipping us the finger.

“Well, my friend, your finger-flipping days are now over.”

He reached into the canvas bag and pulled out a saw.

“That’s right:  you’ve heard of an eye for an eye?  Well, this is a finger for a finger.”

The man screamed, told him he was crazy, and begged.  He told them they would be caught.

“No, I don’t think we’ll be caught, because I don’t think you’re even going to go to the police, because if you do, you’ll have to explain why we did this, and I don’t think you want to do that.”

The man again screamed and again pleaded.

“Now, before we begin, I have to make a few points.  First, we’re not trying to kill you.  If we were, you’d already be dead.  There’s a bag over there by the tree with ice and a towel.  After we cut off you finger, you should wrap your hand in it and keep it in ice.  We’ll keep your finger as a souvenir.”

“Second, see that path over there?  That’s your way out of here.  It’s about a half mile to the street.  You won’t have to wait more than a minute or two before you can flag someone down, and the hospital’s only five minutes away.

“Third and most important, this is a message, and we want to be very clear about it.  The hassling will stop.  The muggings will stop.  This is our community, too, and our school and our everything else, and we have a right to live here in peace, too.  We got you today and we’re prepared to do something like this every day if we have to.

“And most important of all, we don’t want to see any more fingers waved in our faces anymore.  Got it?”

The man was too frightened to respond.

The boy who spoke went behind the man and took his leg from Yuri.  Yuri took the saw, came around front, and sliced – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven times – ripping through skin, muscle, and finally bone as blood spurted out of the man’s hand.  The man screamed in pain, and one of the boys who held him groaned and then vomited.  As soon as Yuri seized the now-unattached finger, the boys freed the man and sprinted up the path.  In seconds they were gone.

*      *      *

The following day, all of the boys looked apprehensively in the newspaper to see if it reported on their crime; it did not. That morning at school, it seemed almost like business as usual:  a few were tripped in the corridors and there was an incident in the gym locker room.

At 12:30, though, when they went to lunch, there was nothing:  no incidents, no harassment, no bullying, just an occasional stare.

And not a single middle finger.

 

 

 

 

 

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