Have We Learned Nothing?

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Blurred train moving past a railroad crossing

You may have heard of the tragic accident last week in which a train hit a garbage truck. The train was carrying Republican members of Congress, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, to a retreat in West Virginia. Neither the politicians nor their families were seriously injured but a passenger in the truck was killed. And then the politicized tweets started.

Horror writer Stephen King tweeted “A trainload of Republicans on their way to a pricey retreat hit a garbage truck. My friend Russ calls that karma.”

When called out, King issued a formal apology. “A rather thoughtless tweet from me concerning the train-truck crash, for which I apologize (if one is necessary). It should be pointed out, too, that those Republican politicians, who can be heartless when they vote, immediately got out to help.”

Okay, it’s not a great apology in that it questions its own necessity and calls the politicians “heartless when they vote” while acknowledging that they got out to help, but it’s there. And King is a brilliant wordsmith, so I imagine he ended up saying exactly what he intended to say.

The same day as the accident, Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) announced his retirement from Congress at the conclusion of his term. This prompted political author and pundit Jonathan Tasini to tweet, “Wow, btwn train full of Goopers hitting truck and this, God is working hard today to clean up the stink. Thank her. #TreyGowdy #goptrainwreck”

Garnering 781 comments but only 21 “likes” before being deleted, the tweet might have generated what one news report called “the worst comment-to-like ratio in the history of Twitter.”

Tasini’s subsequent “apology” makes King’s look like a masterwork of remorse. He tweeted, “Apologies people. It was poked out in midst of convo w 2 colleagues on the deep racism/hypocrisy/criminality promoted by GOP or as GOPer Amanda Carpenter says, gaslighting of America . Deleting.” If King took the opportunity to poke at his political opponents mid-apology, Tasini wailed on his with a baseball bat.

What’s disheartening about such tweets is not so much that they happened but that in our social-media-immersed society, people still don’t know any better. One of the 781 comments on Tasini’s deleted tweet was the observation “From one media figure to another: you’re going to regret posting this.” Is that a prescient insight or just common sense?

King and Tasini are both intelligent, media-savvy men; they definitely should have known better. Besides, this is hardly untread territory. There has been so much precedent that one can barely claim ignorance.

There was much of this following the 2017 shooting in Las Vegas. One notable example came from Hayley Geftman-Gold, at the time a legal executive at CBS. She was dismissed after writing, “I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.”

There’s also the case of Kenneth Storey, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Tampa who was let go after suggesting in a tweet that Hurricane Harvey’s destruction was “instant karma” for Texas because it voted Republican. (Storey’s home state of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma almost immediately after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, dispelling the putative correlation between voting patterns and the weather.)

I don’t want to skew too politically to the right in that these are all examples of left-leaning people celebrating the misfortunes of right-leaning people; these just happen to be fairly recent, high-profile examples. This practice is wrong if anybody does it to anybody, political affiliation notwithstanding.

A story is told twice in the Talmud, on Megillah 10b (in the name of Rabbi Yochanan) and on Sanhedrin 39b (in the name of or Rabbi Yonasan). It is well known that the Jews sang a song of praise at the Red Sea to give thanks for their salvation. That’s perfectly understandable. But according to this Talmudic exegesis, the angels also wanted to take this opportunity to sing God’s praises; this He did not permit. Rather, he chastised the angels, saying, “My children are drowning in the sea and you want to sing?”

Along similar lines, King Solomon, the wisest of all men, taught us, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and do not let your heart gloat when he stumbles” (Proverbs 24:17).

These morals are talking about how we should feel about actual enemies. It should go without saying that we shouldn’t rejoice when bad things happen to others who happen to be registered for a different political party. As I wrote recently, we have to stop seeing people with different political or theological points of view as our enemies. Despite the overblown tendency to compare one’s political rivals with Hitler, elected officials for whom we did not vote are not the SS and those who did vote for them are not Brownshirts. Save rejoicing for when your candidate wins on election night. When tragedy strikes, we should focus on the things that unite us and not take the opportunity to drive our factions farther apart.

We’ve seen enough social-media firestorms that we should know when “you’re going to regret posting this.” Perhaps, before tweeting something we think is clever, we should pause and remember the words of radio host Bernard Meltzer: “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.