Response to the Tree of Life Shootings

By Jay D. Aronson

This piece is part of the first installment of Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting, a series edited by Heath Cabot and Michal Rose Friedman. 

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Photo by Brian Cohen

Since Columbine, Americans have grown unsettlingly accustomed to mass shootings. We know what to expect from politicians, the media, and gun-control and gun rights advocates. More recently, especially since the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings, we have seen activists—mothers and students in particular—trying to break through the predictability to create lasting political change.

Until a few weeks ago, these shootings always happened somewhere else, in someone else’s community. Other peoples’ lives were upended or cut tragically short. Yes, I knew that these shootings happened, but the chances of a person like me being affected in any way were still exceedingly rare. Bullets rang out in someone else’s neighborhood. SWAT teams ran up someone else’s streets. TV reporters filed stories from sidewalks that did not know the soles of my feet.

Photo by Brian Cohen.

That cool, statistical approach that allowed me to process and minimize any concerns that gun violence would directly affect me, my family, and my community is gone. I am currently dealing with the October 27, 2018 massacre on so many levels—as a community member, as a Jew, as a friend of people who survived or lost loved ones in the attack, as a parent of scared children, as a politically engaged citizen, and as a volunteer.

I am also engaging with the mass shooting professionally—as a scholar of efforts to make sense of mass violence and human rights abuse through forensic investigations and statistical analysis, as a facilitator of multidisciplinary collaborations, as an observer and critic of memorialization processes, and as an amplifier for the voices of victims of human rights violations, their families, and communities.

It’s a very strange thing to simultaneously be a mourner, a practitioner, and a scholar. While attending funerals, I was already thinking about the preservation of the memorials that have emerged around Squirrel Hill. And while I was visiting the memorials, I was imagining the various ways we might remember the eleven beautiful people who were killed just as they were settling into their Shabbat routines.

If I may take a step back for a moment, it is the scholar in me that has been waiting for a chance to reflect upon the events that I’ve experienced so viscerally. When I initially approached the memorial that had emerged outside of the synagogue at an intersection that I’ve walked hundreds, if not thousands, of times, I was immediately struck, like most other people, by the 11 white stars of David, grouped according to the congregations to which the victims they memorialized belonged. These stars were the focal point for the main memorial and in fact dictated in large measure where people left offerings and how they mourned for particular individuals.

Photo by Brian Cohen.

As I spent more time at the memorial, I became increasingly curious about who made them, especially when someone I was talking to pointed out to me that they were crosses with stars of David attached to the front, rather than a design built specifically for Jewish victims. A few conversations finally yielded an answer: they were constructed by a retired carpenter in Illinois named Gregory Zanis through his faith-based organization “Crosses for Losses.”

That evening I went home and did a bit of research and was astonished to learn that Crosses for Losses has built and placed more than 20,000 such monuments across the United States over the past two decades, and that Zanis himself builds memorials to mass atrocity victims and personally drives them through the night from his home to murder scenes. He has done this for pretty much every mass killing that has made the news in the United States in the past two decades, along with countless other victims of violence, inspired by the pain he felt from losing his own father-in-law, who was murdered during an armed robbery in 1996.[1] In many ways, Zanis’s crosses are the starting point for the “spontaneous” memorials that show up in the immediate aftermath of mass shootings in the United States. This alone is a phenomenon worthy of further thought and analysis.

Photo by Brian Cohen.

This information hit me with a profound thud—not so much because of the sheer number of markers he’s constructed or the fact that his crosses in many ways define the early memorialization of mass shooting victims—but because of something that quite frankly embarrassed me. I was shocked that even though I study and write about how societies make sense of mass violence and human rights abuses, I had never previously heard of Zanis or his organization. I can talk and write for hours on end about memorialization of victims of mass violence in South Africa, Bosnia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Germany, and several other countries. I can do the same for victims of the Oklahoma City bombing and soldiers killed in action from the Civil War to the Vietnam War. I even wrote an entire book that focuses on efforts to recover, identify, and memorialize the victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. It’s my business to know about such things.

It very quickly dawned on me that I had made a mental division between the kind of violence perpetrated by governments, military forces, and large-scale terrorists, and that carried out by aggrieved men with high-power guns. The memorials to the victims of the former were on my radar screen, while those to the latter were not. Perhaps it is because American media and culture tend to conceptualize the use of guns as one-off acts of deranged individuals, not systematic and related acts of terror. There are certainly other potential explanations (clearly involving my own biases), but whatever the case, it has become crystal clear to me that this dichotomy no longer makes sense. These mass shootings are not independent events perpetrated by independent individuals. We must conceptualize mass shootings as related and concerted actions by a group of people with a particular set of goals—in the same way we understand that the lynchings of the Jim Crow era were a systematic effort to enforce racial superiority. While mass shooters do not share a single political world view or ideology, they are united by a desire to seek vengeance for perceived slights, whether personal or social, by killing as many people as possible in a planned, well-orchestrated, and cruel attack.

I, for one, can no longer abide by the clear separation that I once saw between the kinds of mass violence and human rights abuse that I have studied to date, and the gun violence that I so effectively compartmentalized since Columbine. They are two sides of the same coin, and I am committing myself to treating them as such from now on in my scholarship and teaching. It is the least I can do to honor the memory of the eleven victims murdered in cold blood just a few blocks from where I live.

aronson_800x800.jpgDr. Jay D. Aronson is the founder and director of the Center for Human Rights Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also Professor of Science, Technology, and Society in the History Department there. Aronson’s research and teaching focus on the interactions of science, technology, law, media, and human rights in a variety of contexts. He is currently engaged in a long-term project on the use of video evidence in human rights investigations. Previously, Aronson spent nearly a decade examining the ethical, political, and social dimensions of post-conflict and post-disaster identification of the missing and disappeared in collaboration with a team of anthropologists, bioethicists, and forensic scientists. His wrote Who Owns the Dead? The Science and Politics of Death at Ground Zero (Harvard University Press, 2016). Aronson received his Ph.D. in the History of Science and Technology from the University of Minnesota and was both a pre- and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A recent story about photographer Brian Cohen’s work is available here.





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