Reflecting on Tree of Life One Year Removed


Tree of Life synagogue | Photo credit: Keith Srakocic / AP

Jonah Woolley, Politics Writer

A year ago today, the US faced the largest antisemitic attack in its history.

46-year-old Robert Bowers, fueled by hatred and white nationalism, walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in under 20 minutes, killed 11 people and wounded 6 more.

The shooting was violent and horrific, and for me, it hit very close to home. I live in Squirrel Hill, the neighborhood where the Synagogue Shooting occurred, and my house is a 5-minute walk from Tree of Life. I’m very personally connected to it: I’ve attended several bar mitzvahs there, I have many friends and acquaintances who are a part of its congregation, and I pass it almost daily.

While I’d heard about the mass shootings happening across the U.S., this was the first time something like that happened in my city. I expected to be rocked, to be scared for my friends who were inside and to have its memory burned into my mind for years. In reality, the experience was much different.

I first heard the news when my mom walked into my room and told me there was an active shooter in the neighborhood, and I registered it with relative indifference. I knew it was alarming, and I knew I had to stay inside, but I didn’t feel any fear.

Even though I was told the shooter was less than a mile from my house, it felt like it was so much further.

Even later, when I saw the story on the national news, when I walked past the Tree of Life and saw it closed, when I saw the “Stronger Than Hate” signs and the vigils and the commemoration events, it still felt distant. Even when I recognized what had happened, and where it had happened, it felt like it was not connected to me.

It felt like the shooting had happened in my community, but not to it.

What happened at Tree of Life has taught me a lot about how we approach shootings in the US currently, and how our reactions have been shaped by our culture of gun violence.

Author Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything, and I think that is the best definition of him.” 

What Dostoevsky meant, I believe, is that regardless of the situation, regardless of how absurd or abnormal our condition is, we can learn to roll with it. We can get used to anything, and we can accept anything as normal.

Graph of gun-related homicide rates in high-income OECD countries, 2010. | Image credit: The American Journal of Medicine

We keep talking about how the number of mass shootings in the U.S. is larger than any other country, and how terrible that is, but we have to realize that the frequency of these shootings and their constant media coverage has worked to minimize their impact on society. We’ve gotten used to weekly headlines about these shootings, and as a result, they’ve lost their significance.

These shootings have been reduced to a drone in the background of American society. We’re aware of them, and we understand they’re wrong, but we’ve also grown indifferent to them.

Even gun control advocates have begun to express less and less outrage. These shootings have gone from horrific events to just items on a list, names of cities they can rattle off where shootings have happened as part of their talking points.

I watched as the Tree of Life shooting became an item on the list. It became another name as pundits went on TV and talked about the need for assault rifle bans and limits on high capacity magazines.

This is what we have come to. We’re virtually the only country where this happens, but because it happens so much, it has become our normal. We’re used to hearing about dozens of people being killed by a single mentally ill person who got their hands on a gun, and we’re used to the condolences and the politicians promising change.

Now, when these shootings take place in our communities, it just feels like the inevitable finally happened. Even as we mourn, as we watch our neighbors and our friends in pain, we must face that what happened is no longer the unusual tragedy it should be, but just a reminder of America’s never-ending gun violence epidemic.