Not long ago, my good friend goes into the auto parts store, looking for a new catalytic converter, when this guy walks in. White. Twenty-something. Shaky, with an unstable energy that says to the world: danger.
He looks here, looks there, then walks straight up to my friend, about 5 or 6 feet away, and says this:
"I hate Jews."
But says it loud.
Really loud. So everyone can hear.
"I HATE JEWS."
And he just stands there, staring, the words hanging in the auto parts air like knives.
My friend — who is not Jewish, but felt the impact of these words like he was punched in the chest — is telling me this story, and he pauses, because of the weight of this moment. What comes next? What will this man do? What will my friend do?
"What would you have done?" he asks.
Yes, what would I have done?
What would you have done?
In that moment, my friend was face to face with three of the worst words in human history. The Holocaust. Believers held hostage at a synagogue in Texas. "You-will-not-replace-us!" marches in Charlottesville. The bombing of our own Beth Shalom synagogue in 1977. The red spray-painted swastikas on the Walnut Street Bridge in 2020. Anti-Semitism and hate groups increased to record highs in recent years, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
These three words are like the devil's password, hate's shibboleth, opening up the door into a world of violence and cruelty present even — to borrow Hannah Arendt's phrase — in the banality of an auto parts store.
"What would you have done?"
Would I diffuse? Distract? Dominate?
I HATE JEWS.
They don't hate you.
Go (expletive) yourself and get the (expletive) out of my face and this (expletive) store.
My friend is a Marine, high school teacher and unquestionably one of the best men I know. For him, there was no choice but to respond.
"My brain had to click and catch up," he said.
A split-second ago, he was buying a catalytic converter. Now, he was preparing for ... what? A fight? A mass shooting?
His response? Law of the jungle. My friend had to back this guy down. Had to appear bigger. Threatening. Peace through greater strength.
So he turned up the dial, said something aggressive in return. A deeper voice. He leaned into the guy, not away.
The man stared.
Then turned around and left.
And there was a tangible, somatic exhale in the store.
"There was this sense of bonding between all of us in the store," my friend said.
Even the auto parts employees deferred to my friend.
"If he comes back," they said to him, "will you tell him to leave?"
Since hearing it, I've thought of this story often.
I think of my friend — his brave responsiveness and lightning-quick steadiness. Who knows what he prevented that day? Heroes are made of this.
I think of those around him — galvanized and encouraged by his bravery, as if contagious.
I think of the man — the wounds, confusion, hatred he carries. Where is he now? What storms are in his mind? Who or what will quell them?
Finally, I think of my own life.
He walks into my mind every day.
In the storehouse of my mind and heart, hate can knock loudly at the door. How do I respond? Do I cultivate it? Do I demonize and scapegoat? In the face of a chaotic world, do I grasp for a false steadiness that enemy-making brings?
Do I believe what I read, see and hear online?
I would bet my last dollar this man was soaked in online hate and social media delusion.
Each day, I am given the choice — tempted even — to tighten up, disregard my neighbor and cultivate criticism, isolation and ill will. I don't hate Jews, but I am capable of hating, and this energy, left unchecked and unconscious, can steer me in very destructive directions.
Violence always begins in the heart and mind.
Yet so do courage, community and spiritual resolve.
"We join with one voice to proclaim there is far more that unites us than divides us," declared Chattanooga religious leaders last week.
In the wake of the recent violence in the Texas synagogue, 14 local Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders issued a statement.
"Together, we resolve to be united in strengthening bonds between our communities. The Muslim community extends their friendship to the Jews in this difficult time, and [we] in turn pledge to continue our support of our Muslim brothers and sisters," they wrote, concluding their statement with a prayer:
"For peace-shalom-salam to reign in our world."
From our hearts and minds to the auto parts store.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at email@example.com.
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