The Tree of Life shooting: 1 year later

One year has passed since Tree of Life became a site of death for 11 individuals and the three small congregations that used to worship within its walls. No one had ever dreamed that this place would go down in history as the most violent single act of anti-Semitism the United States has ever known. 

The building stands today, unopened and unused. People may walk around it, look at it, but not enter it. The three small congregations have been “adopted,” finding their new spiritual homes in others of Pittsburgh’s many and vibrant Jewish houses of worship. 

A quiet debate has raged for this past year: What should happen to the shooter?  Should he be put to death as the murderer he is, or be sentenced to incarceration for the rest of his own natural life. Even the survivors and their families, and the families of those who are now gone forever, have not been able to agree. Yes, he does not merit living on as a free man; all can agree on that. But to kill him would be an ending that many object to, while giving him life in prison would force him to live with the memories of what he did for many years to come. Would that be a “better” choice of punishment? 

Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle, a weekly sister to our own TJP, has taken this entire past year to think about how it covered the Tree of Life story, and only now, on this first anniversary, publicly released an explanation of its own reportorial approach. For me, this has shown the best of what today’s often-maligned journalism can be: thoroughly investigating, then cautiously reporting facts as found in ways that inform rather than further inflame, letting truth speak for itself. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s daily “paper on paper,” has already won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for its extensive coverage of that story that everyone hopes will never have to be told again. And it was the Post-Gazette that earlier this month released its own story on how the weekly Chronicle went about its coverage. Here are some excerpts from it: 

“The Chronicle’s staff follows Jewish law that stipulates no work be done on Shabbat…The first instinct of Jim Busis, chief executor and publisher, who lives only a few blocks from Tree of Life, was to walk over and start taking notes and photos. But his faith informed his decision to stay away. Not only could he not rush to the scene to gather information; he couldn’t ask his two reporters, both Jewish, to go either. But he knew that first responders were at Tree of Life, and recognized that wasn’t his role.: “I decided to wait until sunset…and then we were going to get and tell this story.

“Beginning that evening and for the next three days until its print deadline, the Chronicle’s small staff poured all its resources into putting out the shocking news. Mr Busis realized it couldn’t compete with the volume of stories being churned out by other local publications, radio and television outlets, and national media who descended on Pittsburgh…”

Under Busis’ lead – and with a new third reporter added to his staff – the Chronicle left coverage of gunman Robert Bowers to those others and prioritized what was most local for its own 11,500 readers:  the victims, the three small congregations, and the impact of this most deadly act of anti-Semitism on both the Pittsburgh Jewish community and the city as a whole. 

This-coming Sunday, exactly one year since the 2018 attack, my home city — where I had my own first job in journalism with its Jewish weekly — will observe a public moment of remembrance, called Pause with Pittsburgh, at 5 p.m. (Eastern time). We here can join in by signing up at http://www.pausewithpittsburgh.com (see the story on Page 4 of this week’s TJP) to see, hear, and send our own messages of support. Will you join me? Please, and thank you!

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