City of Pittsburgh steels itself against intolerance

Credit: Madeline Kim / Credit: Madeline Kim /
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It’s a typical work-filled Saturday morning. There’s a notification waiting for me on my phone from CMUAlert. It said there was a police operation happening at Shady and Wilkins, and told the community to avoid the area.

Another one. Active shooter at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. By then, national reporters typically posting the latest on the president and Congress were already retweeting reports on Pittsburgh, making me simultaneously confused about what exactly was happening and hoping against hope that it was nothing.

Of course, as we all now know too well, it wasn’t nothing. A gunman, driven by pure hatred to terrorize and kill innocents in a place of worship, a place where they were supposed to have been the safest, cold-bloodedly shot and killed 11 and wounded several more. Those killed were sweet and compassionate in their smiles in those pictures broadcast on the evening news. They could have been your grandparents or mine. They were our neighbors, sharing the city we call home or adopted home. So many knew them professionally, as friends, or as family members.

Yet, despite the tears and the shattered hearts, the absence of words to convey how this could happen in this closely-knit Squirrel Hill community, the sinking feeling that we were now dealing with the aftermath of another mass shooting, Pittsburghers and people all over the nation came together in solidarity. They came together to light candles, place flowers and honor those killed, but they also came together to send a strong statement in defiance of evil and hatred. They came together online, with people using the hashtag #StrongerThanHate on their profile photos. Before a game, the Pittsburgh Penguins honored the heroes who are the first responders, who ran into mortal danger in order to save lives.

Read some signs around Pittsburgh:

“No matter where you are from, we're glad you’re our neighbor.”

“Hate cannot weaken a city of steel.”

On my street corner, a man quietly held a sign on Tuesday saying “Pittsburgh // Proud Home of Refugees and Immigrants.”

In a moment when it felt like evil was about to make its triumph once again, these signs reminded us that after a destructive fire comes the green shoots, that after darkness, there is the light. There is hope if you look around. When evil showed its ugly face, the most selfless and courageous parts of humanity were there to stand up to the evil.

On the CBS Evening News, correspondent David Begnaud reminded the Pittsburgh community and the nation that “Mr. Fred Rogers, who lived in the neighborhood, used to tell children that in times of trouble, look for the helpers. Mr. Rogers, we found them.” The helpers were, indeed, the light that shined where our hearts despaired; they were the kindness that is the only antidote to hatred.

Through compassion, the Pittsburgh I know as my adopted hometown and the Carnegie Mellon I know as my school emerged strong in unity and love. A vigil on campus honoring the deceased had over 1,500 attendees, with many more turned away due to lack of space. Many students walking by the fence took a moment to place a small stone on the top of the fence in a gesture to honor the victims. In each stone: a blessing sent to the deceased, a sadness that this happened, a show of support for the families and for the Jewish community. In one collective voice, we said: we stand for something so much better and stronger and everlasting than the small-minded, violent thoughts and deeds of one person.

We may not be able to completely eradicate hateful views, but the goodness of most people is also unfailingly strong. The flame of kindness may flutter in the wind, but it refuses to be blown out. The tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue hit close to home. Yet, just as close to home was the Pittsburgh spirit, a star shining bright in a moment marred by tragedy.