Americas new mantra: No place is safe from violence

LOS ANGELES — Whether you live in Colorado, Alabama or California, one thing is certain about life in America today: The violence that seems to be forever happening somewhere else will eventually strike home.

You might have thought the shootings and bombings and beatings were always, thankfully, taking place elsewhere. But what they have really been doing is circling closer and closer.

As of presstime Wednesday, there is a little boy still in serious condition. A teen and an adult escaped with lighter wounds, as did two other little boys.

The scenes on television are so familiar by now they unspool like summer reruns: the helicopters circling overhead, victims fleeing the scene, SWAT teams, ambulances, the tidbit-by-tidbit babble of the news anchors. It is familiar, but it is always worse with children. Always.

The rest of the world should understand the setting of this latest attack. A Jewish community center in the summer is alive with noisy kids, enthusiastic young counselors and hovering older staff. It smells of sunscreen and pizza. Parents and staff come and go, waving as they tug their over-excited children through the ruckus.

I know this, because at the time of the shooting at the North Valley, my 6-year-old boy was at his day camp across town at the Westside JCC. We parents find thousands of things to worry about in any given day. It never occurred to me to worry about him at the JCC. Now that joins the list. Repeat the new American mantra: No place is safe. No place is safe.

Nine years ago, during the Gulf War, Los Angeles Police Department anti-terrorism experts visited area synagogues and other Jewish institutions and encouraged them to beef up security. Some places did.

Those that didn't will now face complex and expensive issues of how to, in L.A. Police Chief Bernard Parks words, "harden the target" against the violence out there. JCCs have long functioned as campuses for preschools and camps, but they have likely neglected the security responsibility that comes with being a school in today's world.

But will any security measures they now take make us worry less? No, not anymore. The damage has been done.

An hour after the shooting, long before Buford Furrow turned himself in, we received word that federal and local investigators were already investigating the attack as a hate crime. It didn't surprise us.

Last year the Jewish Journal reported on a series of white supremacist-linked vandalism in Granada Hills and other San Fernando Valley communities. Hindsight is 20/20, but experts from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the Anti-Defamation League have long warned that the step from a swastika to a gun is not as great as we'd like to believe.

Hate isn't the end of the story, though.

At a press conference shortly after the shooting, Jeffrey L. Rouss, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles, departed from his written comments to plea for gun control. So did Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Wiesenthal Center and the ADL's David Lehrer.

These men risked politicizing the moment, but it was a noble risk. Evidently, it can't be said often enough or loud enough by enough sane people for our representatives to understand: Hate and psychosis are not unique to our country, but easy access to firearms is.

It is time for Jews from across the religious and political spectrum to join in lobbying for saner gun laws. Suddenly, assault rifles are a Jewish issue.

Jews are stunned, outraged, anxious and grieving. We feel for the injured and their parents even more because we have walked those same halls, with our own children.

"I'm in shock," one of our reporters on the scene of the story told me by cell phone. "My kid's Jewish day school is 10 minutes away. It's all so arbitrary."

She's right to be in shock. But she's wrong that these sorts of attacks, in America, in 1999, are all so arbitrary.

On the contrary, they are beginning to feel inevitable.

Rob Eshman
Rob Eshman

Rob Eshman is national editor of the Forward. Follow him @foodaism.