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Sam Bisno: Honor Squirrel Hill's lost lives on Election Day

| Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018, 8:03 p.m.
Protesters gather in Pittsburgh Oct. 30.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Protesters gather in Pittsburgh Oct. 30.

There have been more mass shootings than days in 2018. The gruesome litany includes Feb. 14 in Parkland and May 18 in Santa Fe. And now Oct. 27 in Pittsburgh.

Robert Bowers, 46, opened fire on a group of worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, killing 11 in what was the deadliest hate crime against Jews in the history of the United States.

Eleven people who woke up that morning and prepared to attend regular Shabbat services as well as a bris — the Jewish celebration of new life. Eleven people who had plans for lunch, or to see a movie, or to spend time with their loved ones. Eleven people who will never experience those simple joys again.

Eleven families, watching as the events unfolded on the news, frantically calling, hoping, praying for someone to pick up on the other end. Eleven voice mails that will never be heard.

I have been aware of gun violence for some time now. I’ve read, again and again, of the lives that have been taken. I’ve shaken my head, discussed among friends, posted the obligatory status update, even attended some rallies. But somehow, gun violence was never real to me before last weekend. It is clear to me only now that deep down, I had always thought that something like this would never happen in Pittsburgh.

I have been a resident of this city for my entire life. For 16 years, I have gone to school here, interacted with my neighbors here, watched the Pirates fail here, felt safe here.

Last Saturday, sitting anxiously just five minutes from where 11 Jews were being brutally murdered in a heinous act of anti-Semitism, was the first time I felt unsafe.

I am Jewish, and, although I do not practice outside of the occasional Passover Seder, I am friends with many Jews who do. One of the people I was with at the time of the shooting attends Tree of Life nearly every Saturday. When I wasn’t obsessively refreshing my phone, watching the death toll rise, I was staring out the window as cars whizzed by, seemingly business-as-usual, in some sort of perfect, twisted metaphor for our numbness to hate-fueled gun violence.

Reading Bowers’ social media posts, in which he blamed the “filthy evil Jews” for “(bringing in) invaders to kill our people” and all but announced his plans to attack Tree of Life due to its ties to the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, writing “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” I feel unsafe.

Shortly after the shooting, President Donald Trump denounced the act as “evil” and declared his intention to visit Pittsburgh to grieve with the loved ones of the victims. Just days later, he ordered 5,000 troops to the southern border to combat the caravan of migrants making its way through Mexico. In a chilling parallel, Trump used language almost identical to Bowers’— tweeting, “This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

Tree of Life was not random. It was one in a series of all-too-familiar tragedies. It is what happens in a system that tolerates and normalizes armed white supremacy. Our elected officials aren’t going to suddenly stop demonizing immigrants and people of color to divide Americans from one another for political gain. They aren’t going to suddenly stop offering condolences after mass shootings publicly while accepting checks from the NRA behind closed doors. The only way to make those things happen is to confiscate their power.

Following the vigil on Saturday night, during which we came together as a city in that signature Pittsburgh rain to mourn and to remember and to celebrate the lives that were lost, a chant broke out among the crowd. One single, simple, powerful, beautiful word: “Vote.”

Nov. 6 is our opportunity to ensure that Tree of Life is the last straw, the final time we have to go through this. Our hearts can’t take much more.

Sam Bisno is a junior at Pittsburgh Obama Academy.

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