This past week was, as one colleague termed it, “a week from Hell.” Last Saturday we were jarred out of weekend routines by news out of Pittsburgh that a gunman spewing anti-Semitic epithets entered the Tree of Life Synagogue and killed 11 members and wounded others during a baby naming ceremony.
Compounding the shock of this horrific mass murder, President Trump initially blamed the victims, faulting the security at the synagogue for not having sufficient firepower. The president of the United States doubled down as inciter-in-chief, using political rallies to attack Democratic victims of recent bombing attempts on their lives and to fabricate from whole cloth that a caravan of Central American refugees and immigrants in Mexico was an invasion force (justifying his unprecedented deployment of 15,000 troops to the U.S. border with orders to use lethal force). As if this shocking erosion of democratic norms in our country were not sober enough, the president of the United States undermined basic tenets of our constitutional democracy when he declared, contrary to the 14th Amendment, that he could unilaterally change the basis of U.S. citizenship.
Here in Maryland we faced a governance crisis of our own when the Board of Regents sought to usurp the University’s authority when it became clear that the president of the University intended to hold the football coach accountable for failing to respect and protect all the student athletes under his care, including Jordan McNair.
In the face of hate, violence, the collapse of democratic norms – and in the face of cascading failures of leadership, governance and human decency – people might be forgiven if they felt more than a little helpless last week. But we aren’t.
We can make the choice to rise above.
What could this look like?
We can aggressively assert openness – resisting pressures to turn inward, and instead turn outward – following the example of the Jewish community in Squirrel Hill and around the country that opened itself to include members of other religions and communities into their sacred Shabbat ceremonies less than a week after the mass murder, despite a looming sense of vulnerability.
We can show courage and grace like Dr. Jeff Cohen, a Pittsburgh physician who not only treated the shooter despite the knowledge of what he had just done to members of his community, but also in a gesture of amazing grace, declared, “He is some mother’s son.” Where the shooter sought to divide and destroy, Dr. Cohen rose above, reasserting humanity in the face of inhumanity.
We can demonstrate genuine, even radical empathy with others who are under assault – as citizens around the country have done for victims of violence, racism, misogyny and fear of people who don’t look, sound or pray like them. Here at the University of Maryland we must all put ourselves in the living room of the McNair family grieving the loss of a beautiful 19 year old who will not be able to live out his promise in this world. Their cry for justice must be ours.
We can organize to protect and defend our self-governance, as students, faculty, staff, administrators, supporters and alumni have done by challenging the usurpation by the Regents – on McKeldin Mall, in the University Senate, in the boardrooms and in the halls of Annapolis and Baltimore. Now we must get our house in order – delivering not only justice for Jordan, but also an inclusive, safe and supportive learning environment for all current and future students at our university.
We can actively defend our democratic rights and systems as hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and others are doing from North Dakota to Georgia, and from North Carolina to Texas as systematic efforts are made to disenfranchise voters.
We can exercise our rights and responsibilities as citizens of this country by voting. Whatever one’s views, whoever one supports, we must prove that democracy works, or we may lose it. And while tomorrow’s midterm elections are important, active citizen engagement on an ongoing basis must become a way of life for us all. I hope that the SPP community can take a leadership role in this regard in the coming weeks, months and years.
We can unite, over legion efforts to divide – rejecting hate and efforts to manipulate us by playing to our fears. We can embrace African Americans’ struggle for justice. We can welcome refugees and immigrants in our midst. We can welcome foreign students. We can welcome Republicans and Democrats, Independents, Greens, Libertarians, Democratic Socialists and all people of good will who are willing to work to build a better America.
Indeed, we can, and we must, rise above. We will need moral courage and clarity of purpose. We will need to galvanize our better angels. We can and must get our feet on the path and start walking, start marching. We have people to honor, systems to fix, votes to cast, work to do. Let us do so together.
Dr. Robert C. Orr serves as UMD School of Public Policy dean, United Nations under secretary-general, and special advisor to the UN secretary-general on climate change. Prior to joining the University of Maryland, Orr served as the assistant secretary-general for strategic planning in the executive office of the United Nations secretary-general from 2004 to 2014, and was the principal advisor to the secretary-general on counter-terrorism, peace building, women’s and children’s health, sustainable energy, food and nutrition, institutional innovation, public-private partnership and climate change.
Orr joined the United Nations from Harvard University where he served as the executive director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. Prior to this, he served as director of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Orr has served in senior posts in the government of the United States, including deputy to the United States ambassador to the United Nations and director of global affairs at the National Security Council, where he was responsible for peacekeeping and humanitarian affairs.