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Innocent Faces in Familiar Places: A Reflection on the Synagogue Shooting

By Derek Malush, Point Park News Service

October 27th, 2018

8:56 a.m.

The alarm on my cracked Android cell phone rings through my ears for the third time. The snooze button has become a close friend of mine throughout the mornings, especially on a Saturday. I drag my feet down the carpeted stairs and begin to fix myself a cup of coffee: Two creams and one sugar is my usual calling for the ideal start to the day. Having plans to go to the Pancake House with my girlfriend, Abby, had been on my mind since we planned it days before. As I am drinking my all-too-sweet Colombian roasted coffee, Abby calls me with a sudden change of plans.

“My mom just got us tickets to the Halloween Cruise on the Gateway Clipper! It’s a children’s cruise; Jackson is going as a dinosaur. I would love to spend the morning there. Would you want to go?”

With not much of an excuse other than my desperate want for homemade-style strawberry pancakes, I agreed to attend the cruise to see her 4-year-old cousin bask in his spooky Halloween glory with all the other children.

10:02 a.m.

Abby, her mother and sister pick me up from my house, and we begin to travel north, toward Downtown Pittsburgh.

It has been a monotonous day, cold and rainy since the minute I snoozed on my cell phone for the third and final time.

10:20 a.m.

As we are about three-fourths of the way through the soot-riddled Liberty Tunnels, a police siren blares about 150 yards behind us. Since we were about to exit the tunnel, Abby’s mother did not have to maneuver out of the officer’s way.

A few minutes pass, and we have arrived at the Gateway Clipper Fleet parking lot. I get out of the car, my feet clapping off the puddles as if someone were applauding the way I walked. We reach the dock and hand over our tickets and board the liner.

“Jackson! Come back here!” screams Abby’s cousin, Katie, the mother of little Jackson.

His eyes lit up as he noticed the crew dressed as characters like Frankenstein, a werewolf, the Black Panther, a zombie and many more Halloween related depictions. Pizza, chicken fingers, mac and cheese and pop was on the menu for the kids.

It was only later that day that I realized I could have made my own extra-large pizza with how little kids eat these days. Half-bitten chicken fingers scattered the tables and most of the pizza was still in-tact as the children only loved the pepperoni that it was topped with.

10:32 a.m.

As the boat departed from the dock, Abby and I walked up to the top deck to catch a glimpse of this beautiful, rustic city we both call home. Passing just under the Roberto Clemente Bridge, we see an all-black, almost undercover-looking vehicle whistling through traffic at warp speed.

We pay it no mind, get the tourist-like photo of us with the city as the backdrop, and head inside for more festivities.

As I lean over the white rail looking down on the children from the top floor, love and innocence paint their faces ear to ear, dancing and participating in a game of Limbo, I receive an email alert from my university.

10:46 a.m.

“This email is in recognition of the tragic events that took place this morning in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. Point Park University Police have been in touch with Pittsburgh Police in relation to this isolated incident. At this time police from a number of different agencies (Pittsburgh, County, State, Federal, etc.) are addressing this situation.”

Then the texts begin to roll in like wildfire.

“Are you seeing this on the news right now?” a friend texts me.

“8 people are dead and counting,” says the local news twitter page.

“All Jews must die,” is what the police scanner had picked up earlier that morning.

The Tree of Life Synagogue, located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of my city fell under an attack of violence. An attack of revulsion. An attack on the Jewish faith. An attack on the world.  

As I relay this gut-wrenching news to Abby’s family, we begin to take to our cell phones in search for more news about what is happening no more than five miles away.

Scrolling through my social media platforms, I eerily read the copious amounts of unnerving captions that have completely overtaken my timelines.

“11 dead as gunman surrenders to police” reads one news story.

“More people could be trapped inside,” reads another.

With my stomach in knots, and my city in turmoil, I begin to look around at the innocent faces that veiled the boat.

“These kids know absolutely nothing about what is going on outside in their world, our world,” I tell Abby.

“Such innocence in these children’s faces, yet so much is unknown in their minds,” I utter.

Maybe that is what is causing the innocence. Maybe children should only know their bedtime, and only worry about what mom packed for lunch.

“Wouldn’t we all like to travel back in time and live in that world again?” I lightheartedly mumble to myself, when in reality, loved ones were being tragically taken from this earth unexpectedly, and families are riotously calling one another to see if they are all O.K.

This is the same world where a cute little blonde girl who had dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of OZ, was dancing to the “Monster Mashwith Frankenstein on the dance floor under a rainbow-colored disco ball.

So, as gunshots rang through the dampened streets of Squirrel Hill that morning, little Jackson was running to claim his prize at the gift table as his winning ticket was called first.

Seeing two entirely opposite interpretations of the universe unravelling before my eyes frightened me.

I do know why these two different worlds exist. One is meant for adults, and one is for children. Children tend to not see religion, race, ethnicity or hate play into their lives. Children see colors, love and acceptance throughout their childhood. Like when the little boy dressed up as a Ghostbuster gave up his slice of pepperoni pizza to the race car driver because he had dropped his on the floor before sitting down.

“Why can’t we all grow old, but still have those child-like qualities that bring a little tear to your eye when you see it?” I wondered.

Children serve as the platform of societies mannerisms, even if they blindly do so. We should all recognize that a child’s unknowingness and generosity is far more superior to anything we may have cultured throughout the years.

However, as for people in our world, the adult world, tend to see and judge the colors we are made up of. The religions we practice. The cultures we inherit. Love is universal to all and should have no eyes. Only a heart. It’s odd that people will judge one another based on a first impression. They will judge by the eyes and not the heart. A face but not the brain. If we continue these ever-so-poor mannerisms that seem to litter the fabric of our society, we will never continue to grow as one, stand united, and serve as equals.

This recent attack was not an attack on race, color or ethnicity.

This was an attack on religion. Belief. Conviction.

Events like this are bigger than what makes you, you. This was an attack on society. Civilization as we know it today. But we will stand united. We will always continue to be better than one’s abhorrence. Because what makes us, us, is how we handle these misfortunes and adversities.

I remember when I was in grade school, we would practice storm drills by sitting criss-cross on the floor, facing the lockers as we buried our heads into our chests and covered our heads. Now, children are practicing the school shooter drill dubbed, “Run, hide, fight.” It’s mortifying to see the child-adult worlds slowly collide so rapidly.

I guess what I am trying to say, is that this world can be a cold place to hang your hat on sometimes. And no matter what or who injects their morals and beliefs into us, we must all unite as one. We are one city. We are one world. Because the last time I checked, it doesn’t matter if you’re on the east coast, west coast, up north or down south. We all hurt the same and bleed the same blood. From Pittsburgh to across the nation, we are all, and should remain, “Stronger than Hate.”

To all the families and friends that were affected by this inhumane act, we love and fully support you.

And to the entire community of Squirrel Hill, events such as these will only unite you more than you’ve ever thought was humanly possible. Because no one will know or begin to understand the kind of pain that you all have endured over these last few weeks.

This is a pain that you all share and will never undermine.

And as for all the Dortheys, the Ghostbusters, the race car drivers and baby dinosaurs out there, we need your guidance.


To ensure that this world, can someday, become one.

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