News outlets claim that Robert Bowers yelled that Jews were guilty of genocide to ‘his people’ before murdering 11 people. He was interrupting a prayer service with a hate crime that can’t be described as anything other than an ethnic cleansing. I knew before coming to class the following week that it would be a heavy lesson and pill to swallow. How do you begin to address a current genocide in a course specifically about Holocaust and Genocide Studies? What do we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again? When will people stop looking for ‘warning signs’ rather than addressing the actual crimes? We’ve found that there are rarely warning signs with these mass shootings. Plenty of Americans have more guns than necessary, but Congress apparently doesn’t deem that to be a warning sign. I’m still processing what happened in that Pittsburgh synagogue since we had just went over contemporary hatred before this tragedy occurred. There’s deep hurt attached to this because history repeated itself. A white supremacist sought to destroy a community of peaceful people bounded together by religiosity.
The United Nations constitutes that the word genocide came about as a result of the Holocaust, thanks to Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coining it (www.un.org). I don’t want to call it ironic that the Tree of Life shooting was a genocide 80 years later (because that might imply humor) but it’s certainly intriguing that the same factors that caused the Holocaust caused this. Bowers wanted to kill members of the Jewish faith, cause serious bodily or mental harm to them and deliberately inflict on the group physical conditions to destroy part of it. These are all considered genocide by the United Nations if just one heinous crime is committed; he achieved three. It’s safe to say that Bowers was attempting an ethnic cleansing in this case too. What’s rattled me the most is that he had the audacity to claim that Jewish people were committing genocide? How frightening to think that people in modern society still sensationalize that ideology. According to his best friend of a decade, Bowers didn’t show too many signs of being a radical murderer when they were friends. He’s said to have enjoyed beer, Hooters and kept a shotgun by his front door in case the United Nations came for him (Lord 2018). A question that keeps running through my mind is: do all hateful killers appear as normal?
Perhaps the word intersectionality blazes through my thoughts because of other Women’s Studies courses, but I can’t help but feel grief for other communities of gun victims as a result of this tragedy. There has been an outpouring of financial and emotional support to the city of Pittsburgh and the synagogue worldwide. A depressing article raised questions about why we don’t mourn black lives the way that we do this massacre, which led to some reflection afterwords. Terenah-Idia, an Afro-Latina woman in Pittsburgh writes, “With little time to grieve and ponder the ramifications of this latest white supremacist violence, African-Americans had to quickly reconcile the onslaught of media describing a city of love that they do not recognize,” because the same support has not been offered to their community (Idia 2018). In our Holocaust and Genocide Studies class, there was acknowledgement from the beginning that this class would not necessarily be a joyful one. We are living in a world where the same tragedies that was reminisce on from the past few centuries are repeating themselves without people wanting to call them for what they are. The Tree of Life shooting is an unfriendly reminder that hate crimes based upon religion are a very real issue that we are still facing today. If you google “Tree of Life Shooting,” article after article calls Robert Bowers a “gunman” or “shooter” but they all seem to avoid calling him a murderer or anti-Semitist. If he were a man of color, you know that he’d be painted as a vicious murderer. White privilege daunts media titles the same way it does with customer service interactions.
It’s taken me 4 days to finish writing this essay because the prompt was to explain how I understand this shooting as a Holocaust and Genocide Studies student. Every time that I think about this shooting, my throat closes up and I feel like I could sob for humanity endlessly. This is modern-day genocide. This is a hate crime. This is a lack of gun control where it was needed most. This is pathetic. Congress, do better with your stipulations for gun ownership. We need less guns and more United-Nations based reform. How do we address something like this from a logical standpoint when it’s such an emotionally draining situation that we have little control over? Spare me the NRA facts and end white supremacy before more victims become memories.
Idia, Tereneh. “The Tree of Life Shooting Devastated All of Pittsburgh. I Can’t Help but Ask: Why Aren’t Black Lives Mourned This Way?” 100 Days in Appalachia, 16 Nov. 2018, www.100daysinappalachia.com/2018/11/16/the-tree-of-life-shooting-devastated-all-of-pittsburgh-i-cant-help-but-ask-why-arent-black-lives-mourned-this-way/.
Lord, Rich. “How Robert Bowers Went from Conservative to White Nationalist.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11 Nov. 2018, www.post-gazette.com/news/crime-courts/2018/11/10/Robert-Bowers-extremism-Tree-of-Life-massacre-shooting-pittsburgh-Gab-Warroom/stories/201811080165.
Rourke, Matt. Opinion: #LOVETHYNEIGHBOR. Pittsburgh, 29 Oct. 2018.
“United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.” United Nations, United Nations, www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/genocide.html.
Mikalah Lake is a senior in the Women’s Studies department, minoring in Psychology. She is drawn to Women’s Studies because of the critical thinking and awareness the assignments require. Based off the female genealogy in her family, she hopes to break the cycle of oppression through the opportunities her education has afforded her. Areas of intrigue include global studies, intersectionality, public health, body modification and sexuality. She has an Instagram page called @bodyloristsofhr that aims to enlighten through personal stories.