Combatting hate with mercy

Eliyahu Gasson | Staff Writer

March 30, 2023

I remember where I was when the Tree of Life shooting happened. I was in the Taylor Allderdice marching band. We were going to play at a football game in the afternoon.

Before I left to go rehearse and prep my drum, my mother stopped me. She told me to be careful. The news reported that shots had been fired at the Tree of Life Synagogue, a 5-minute drive from my house.

I wasn’t worried.

Squirrel Hill was one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. I thought it was just some folks in the community being overly concerned. Maybe they heard fireworks nearby. I was 17 years old and naive.

Twenty-or-so minutes after I arrived the school went into full lockdown. Everyone in the drum line was told to go into the choir room where we rehearsed, turn all the lights off and hide.

My drum instructor was incredibly concerned about our safety. To make sure we were all safe (and perhaps out of morbid curiosity) he had a police scanner app playing from his phone. He sat on a chair listening to what was happening in case any danger came toward us.

I was terrified. I didn’t go to Tree of Life but I knew a lot of people who did. Then I heard a police officer on the scanner paraphrase what the shooter had said during his rampage,

“All Jews must die.”

I would always hear from people in my community and from the media that anti-semitism was on the rise in the United States. Before the shooting I was dismissive of the reports. After the shooting I had no choice but to acknowledge that I was not as safe as I thought.

I was around to see my neighborhood hold a vigil in the heart of Squirrel Hill. I started to see the crochet Star of Davids hung up in the neighborhood’s business district. It was surreal to know that a community I thought was safe grieved the senseless deaths of 11 of its members killed while praying.

Now, nearly five years later, the man accused, Robert Bowers, is set to go on trial. He is facing a 63 federal charges and may receive the death penalty.

I don’t think the death penalty is fair to the community or the perpetrator. I don’t think any of us have the right to decide who should die.

Bowers is a product of far-right and neo-Nazi propaganda and rhetoric. He is an unfortunate person with a troubled life that made him susceptible to hateful ideas; ideas that turned him into a terminally online far-right white nationalist.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bowers suffered a life of trauma and neglect. His father was an accused rapist who killed himself when Bowers was only 7 years old. He was raised by his grandparents because his mother was ill. He dropped out of high school and worked as a truck driver.

Bowers is a sad person who let his social isolation give way to anger and violence. He saw himself as the victim of a system broken by powers that had it out for him.

His background, by no means, justifies killing 11 innocent people. It does, however, give some explanation into why he did it.

We should show Bowers mercy for his crimes. We should lock him up–sentence him to life in prison. We should let him live to think about what he has done and we should give him the opportunity to apologize to us for what he did.

We have a duty to the victims, the survivors and the community to make things right.

Letting Bowers live provides an opportunity for apology.

The president of Dor Hadash, one of the congregations worshiping at Tree of Life, Bruce Herschlag, wrote to the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland: “We are desirous of seeing justice meted out in a manner that is both consistent with our religious values and that spares us from the painful ordeal of prolonged legal maneuvering.”

An eye for an eye does mean that a punishment should match the severity of the crime, but it does not mean the results need to be the same.

We need to be better than those who hate us. We need to think about how we would want to be treated if we committed a severe crime.

As a Jewish student at Duquesne I have faced challenges from students. I have seen a classmate raise a Nazi salute. I have been told to my face that Judaism is an offshoot of Christianity and that Jews killed Jesus.

I heard a story from my girlfriend about how she was called abnormal for buying a menorah in her hometown. I have heard horror stories about other minorities facing discrimination on campus.

I do not hate these people who attack me or my girlfriend or my family who attend the university, nor do I hate Robert Bowers for what he did to my community.

I do not like him, don’t get me wrong. Nor do I forgive him because he has not yet apologized.

I do believe he deserves to be treated as a human being. He needs to be given the opportunity to repent.

Allowing the government to execute him does not provide him with such an opportunity. All the death penalty would do is prolong the suffering of both the people he has harmed and himself.