The dead shall not have died in vain

The dead shall not have died in vain
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I am having a hard time finding the words. I did not know what to expect from a community in the aftermath of a mass shooting. What do you say? Would there be fear or resentment? I expected tears and hugs, and I saw a lot of that, but I was blown away by one big thing. It was the presence of love. Everywhere you looked, there was so much love. Asians, Muslims, Christians, Jews, all Americans, all Pittsburghers, all came together with love in their hearts and souls. We must never take that for granted.

Of late it seems we have taken each other for granted. There has been so much anger and vitriol in our public discourse. On Saturday morning, on the Jewish Shabbat, that anger boiled over in the form of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of our nation. For a short time, a house of worship turned into a house of horror. As shocking as it is, we know that anti-Semitism is on the rise. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bluntly said, “Jews were killed in a synagogue. They were killed because they are Jews. The location was chosen because it is a synagogue.”

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When I first heard the news, I was instantly brought back to a story my grandfather told me of how he fled Poland to escape the pogroms. America was a beacon of hope that promised him freedom to worship without fear. I immediately called Rabbi Arthur Schneier and asked if he would join me and Governor George Pataki to lead a mission to Pittsburgh to represent the appeal of conscience. While I did not know what to expect, I will be forever thankful that we went because what I saw in Pittsburgh, while heartbreaking, was also inspiring and reaffirming.

We met with Pittsburgh police chief Scott Schubert. He is built like a steel beam, with a quiet determination and a deep molten passion for his city. Four of his brave police officers were wounded risking their lives in engaging the shooter in the synagogue. Schubert trained his men right, who rushed into the synagogue instead of standing down. I salute these heroes for their courage, where other officers have stood down.

We met with Pittsburgh police officer Daniel Meade, who was one of the first responders on the scene. He and his partner quickly charged into the synagogue and engaged the shooter, providing some worshippers precious time to escape. Visiting Meade in the hospital, where he was recovering from his wound, he told us that all he wanted was to get back on the street and protect Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood he loves.

Later, we were bedside with Andrea Wedner, who was shot with her mother Rose Mallinger praying beside her. As she told her story, we stood transfixed. We cried together, as Andrea described how for a split second, she saw the shooter out of the corner of her eye and attempted to move in front of her mother. But it was too late. Andrea was shot twice and her mother Rose, who was 97 years old and full of life, was gone in the blink of an eye. It is a tragic story so unbelievable and incomprehensible.

That evening, we joined the community for a moving and amazing interfaith memorial service. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall was packed to the rafters, with thousands jammed inside while hundreds more stood outside in the cold rain. This was a life changing experience. Pittsburgh is a big city with the heart of a small town. Speakers of all different faiths together sounded a common refrain of love and light.

The strong people of Pittsburgh have the grace to know what so many politicians fail to grasp. It is that now is not the time for pointing fingers, but a time for holding hands. As one speaker lectured politicians, it is not a time to be politically correct, it is time to do something. These words brought a standing and thundering ovation that shook the hall.

We will never know whether our toxic political climate played a role in unleashing the hate that took nearly a dozen lives too soon, but that does not mean we should not demand better. Scott Schubert deserves better, Daniel Meade deserves better, Andrea Wedner deserves better, Rose Mallinger deserves better, as do the other precious souls that were ripped from this life too soon at Tree of Life Synagogue. We deserve better.

We will not let the hatred of anti-Semitism take root in America. Together we will raise our voices with powerful messages of love to drown out the anger and silence the vitriol in our nation. We must commit, as Abraham Lincoln did, that as we remember the dead “we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Earle Mack served as a former United States ambassador to Finland. He was named chairman emeritus of the New York State Council of the Arts after serving as chairman and chief executive officer from 1996 to 1999.