Six months ago, a gunman killed 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, in what has been called the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil. In the days after the shooting, Pittsburghers seized onto a phrase that both inspired and described the community’s response: “Stronger than hate.”
The phrase showed up on T-shirts and hats, on signs still planted on lawns and posted in shop windows, and in speeches by public officials, celebrities and students.
”I hope everyone does understand that Pittsburgh is stronger than hate,” Mayor Bill Peduto told the Today Show, about 24 hours after the shooting.
“We are Pitt, and together we truly are stronger than hate,” said sophomore Kathryn Fleisher at the University of Pittsburgh’s “Stronger than Hate” rally on Nov. 5.
“If you wanna see a city that’s far, far much stronger than hate, you should go to Pittsburgh,” said Oscar-winning native son Michael Keaton, at an event at Point State Park later that week.
The state legislature declared April 10 “Stronger Than Hate” Day in Pennsylvania, as a way to honor the victims of the October attack.
Because the Tree of Life shooting was believed to be motivated by anti-Semitism, the FBI swiftly classified the shooting as a hate crime and took over the investigation.
The FBI describes a hate crime as one motivated by “bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.”
But some say that "hate" doesn’t tell the whole story.
When hostility toward a particular group is the motivation for a crime, as in the Tree of Life shooting in October, the root cause often goes much deeper, said Pitt sociologist Kathleen Blee. Blee has spent much of her career studying white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan. She said fear, rooted in a sense of vulnerability, often motivates adherence to such ideologies. But Blee said it’s important to note that the vulnerability, in general, is not actually real.
“It's a perceived vulnerability,” Blee stressed. “This is true of anti-Semitic and racist movements across U.S. history. It's the sense that [there is] something that we, the white race in their way of thinking about it, is losing.”
That fear is apparent in the talking points of white nationalist and neo-Nazi hate groups, as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Patrick Casey is executive director of the American Identity Movement. The group recently formed from the remnants of a now-defunct organization called Identity Evropa, which had posted recruitment fliers on Pitt's campus. He subscribes to “identitarianism … a way of viewing the world that emphasizes identity, demographics, culture and so forth,” and said his group seeks to promote the interests of white people.
“White people in the Western world are just allowing themselves to be demographically colonized. They are allowing their histories to be erased, to be maligned.” Casey said. “They're allowing themselves to be ruled over by a ruling elite that does not have their best interests in mind.”
Daniel Burnside lives in Potter County in Northern Pennsylvania and is active with the National Socialist Movement, which refers to itself as a “white civil rights” organization.
“These other countries, these other races and creeds come into our country, they don't share,” he said. “They say they want equality, but they just want us gone, period.”
Similar fears are apparent in the materials distributed by white supremacist groups. KKK fliers posted in Squirrel Hill in the weeks following the Tree of Life shooting refer to black people as “third world savages” who are walking all over white people. Fliers from the white nationalist group Patriot Front were posted in Lawrenceville, saying that in “Occupied America,” borders are irrelevant.
Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, identitarians and others embrace the conspiracy theory of "white genocide," which holds that white people are being replaced by immigrants and people of color. Protestors at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. in 2017 chanted “You will not replace us.” Some chanted “Jews will not replace us,” a reference to the belief that Jewish people run the world and are primarily responsible for perpetrating white genocide.
“They see Jews as a global threat,” said Blee. “As being a secret invisible cabal that controls the economy, that controls the media … and also, to some people, that controls the government.”
Federal authorities say the accused gunman in the Tree of Life shooting said Jews “were committing genocide to his people.”
The idea of white genocide isn’t new, even if the term itself is, said Blee. “This is very old,” she said. “Within the world of white supremacy, this is always key.”
This belief is not just about pure numbers, Blee said, though demographic shifts certainly play a part. It’s the feeling among some whites that they are losing control of their society, and Blee said that messaging can be appealing to someone who is feeling vulnerable, like their life isn’t going well.
“It's sort of ‘here's why it's not [going well], because there are these forces that are targeting you that are making your life difficult,’ and it's given a sense of urgency,” she said. “When it becomes very urgent, that's where you have the terrible potential for violent outburst.”
Toxic shame and childhood trauma
At the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill, beyond a chain link fence, behind a glass window, 11 white paper Stars of David sit among posters, candles, silk flowers and other mementos left after the shooting. Each star bears the name of one of the victims who perished when a gunman opened fire during worship services last October.
“This place is yet another reminder of where this ideology ends up,” said Tony McAleer, co-founder of Life After Hate, which works to help people leave violent, far-right extremits groups.
As he gazed upon the names of those who were killed, he reflected on his trip to Auschwitz last summer. "As much as Auschwitz is in the past, it's events like this here in the present that remind us that we should never forget where this all can go. It doesn't end with Tree of Life. It can go much further.”
McAleer is from Vancouver, Canada and once believed the same ideology that fueled the Tree of Life attack. He said deep down, the emotion that motivated him to become a neo-Nazi wasn’t hate, or even fear. It was shame.
“I'm not talking about healthy shame where you feel the flush in the cheeks or guilt, like I did wrong. Toxic shame as in I am wrong,” McAleer said. “I felt less than myself, and so I adopted an ideology that told me I was greater than. That's how we compensate for it.”
McAleer pointed to childhood trauma as being at the root of his shame. He said that when he was 10 years old, he walked in on his father with another woman. That experience shattered his trust in authority, and things went downhill from there. His grades dropped and, as punishment, he said he suffered physical abuse at the hands of his parents and teachers.
McAleer’s experience is not an isolated one. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism found that childhood trauma is a risk factor for becoming involved in an extremist group. Nearly half of the people interviewed for the study said they were neglected as children. Half said they were physically abused. Half grew up with a family member who struggled with substance use disorder, and one-third either were abandoned by their parents or had parents who were incarcerated. All of these metrics exceed rates of such adverse experiences in the general population.
Researchers have found that trauma, particularly repeated trauma, can physically alter the brain and enlarge the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. That can put people into constant survival mode. Trauma also depresses activity in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates emotions and aids in decision-making.
Jesse Morton, who was once a U.S.-based recruiter for Al Qaeda, said his childhood trauma played a role in his attraction to violent extremism. In a panel discussion about the rehabilitation and reintegration of violent extremists organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace, Morton said that he was drawn to Islam because it provided him stability and a sense of identity. That in itself was a healthy development, he said.
“But on the other end was the stuff that I never recognized,” Morton said. “I chose an interpretation of Islam that was revolutionary and sympathetic to terrorists, not because I made an objective and rational decision and processed all that, but because my traumatized brain was predisposed to accept the black and white worldview and interpretation.”
Researchers note that the vast majority of people who experience childhood trauma will not end up becoming violent extremists. But for those who do, extremist groups can provide a kind of stability that they haven’t before experienced.
“I got a sense of belonging,” said McAleer, who eventually became a white supremacist leader in Canada. “I got acceptance when I felt unlovable. I got attention when I felt invisible. And I got power when I felt powerless.”
McAleer said he stockpiled weapons and imagined he would die in a blaze of glory as he advocated for a separatist, whites-only North America. But his identity as a white supremacist began to unravel when he was 23 years old.
“It was the birth of my children. And children, they love us unconditionally. They don't see the monster that we see. They don't see the less than, they only see us as completely whole.”
Becoming a father, he said, he felt loved for the first time in a long time, and he started to address the trauma from his own childhood.
“The ideology eventually just crumbled,” McAleer said. “The more healing work I did, the more it became ridiculous that I believed that in the first place.”
Compassion as public health
Two decades after leaving organized white supremacy, McAleer co-founded the group Life After Hate and began working to help people leave far-right hate groups. Much of the work focuses on helping people untangle the childhood trauma that led them down the path of violent extremism in the first place.
The key to that work is compassion, said McAleer.
“Compassion is the antidote to shame,” he said. “When we're compassionate with someone ... we hold the mirror up to them and allow them to see their humanity, their wholeness, reflected back at them, when they can't see it or perceive it on their own.”
McAleer’s work is done on an individual scale, one violent extremist at a time. But those who study childhood trauma advocate for a broader, public health approach. That’s in part because of the findings of landmark 1998 study from Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, study.
“We know that childhood adversity increases -- and dramatically in many cases -- the risks for basically all of our major social problems: mental health, health [issues], substance abuse, criminal justice, you name it,” said Dr. Sandra Bloom, a psychiatrist and public health professor at Drexel University.
The study found that most Americans have had at least one adverse childhood experience, such as parental neglect, a family member battling addiction or exposure to domestic violence. The more such experiences someone has, the more likely that person is to experience chronic disease and mental illness, and to either perpetrate or be the victim of violence. Six or more experiences can shorten a person’s life span by 20 years, on average.
The policy implications are monumental, said Bloom, because many of these adverse childhood experiences are preventable.
Bloom is on the board of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice; the group’s mission is to “create a resilient, trauma-informed society where all individuals, families, and communities have the opportunity and support needed to thrive.”
Over the last 30 years, said Bloom, researchers have begun to understand that the siloing of societal problems like criminal justice, mental health and disparities in educational achievement can’t address the root causes of these issues.
“We’ve been dealing with the tip of an iceberg,” Bloom said. “Under the water, we see trauma.”
The idea of trauma-informed education has gained some traction, and trauma-informed models also have advocates within the worlds of criminal justice and health care. But to be truly trauma-informed, in a broad sense, would require a massive paradigm shift, said Bloom.
“This means really rethinking how we understand human nature.”
‘A therapeutic presence’
The Rev. Paul Abernathy is the kind of person whose face lights up when he greets someone. He is generous with “I love yous” and offers brief, impromptu counseling sessions to neighbors outside the Centre Avenue storefront that is home to his church, St. Moses the Black Orthodox Christian Mission.
Abernathy sits on the board of the Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice alongside Sandra Bloom and leads FOCUS Pittsburgh, a trauma-informed community development group. The group runs a free medical and behavioral health clinic, donates backpacks to school kids, offers career training and hosts free community dinners.
“There's a saying that comes from the trauma informed-movement: ‘You don't have to be a therapist to be therapeutic,’” Abernathy said. “Each and every one of us can explore how we are a therapeutic presence in the lives of others ... It compels us to explore how our community -- everything from the built environment to the services that we offer -- how they are therapeutic in nature.”
The theory of being trauma-informed holds that the world’s most pressing societal problems can be addressed by helping people heal and build resilience, and by preventing trauma in the first place. But unless people address and heal their trauma, the odds are stacked against them. That’s particularly true for people facing what Sandra Bloom calls the “relentless stress” of societal forces like racism and poverty.
What’s more, trauma perpetuates itself. “Wounded people can wound other people,” Abernathy said.
Trauma can be cyclical in families: a parent has a substance use disorder and their child experiences neglect. The ACEs study tells us that a child is more likely suffer from addiction in adulthood. It can be a cycle in communities: gun violence begets more gun violence. And it can be a cycle in societies, said Abernathy, when the paradigm is one of competition, of us vs. them. Both he and Bloom point to the current divisive political climates as stoking fear of the other.
“This is not trauma-informed,” Abernathy said. “This is not the kind of society that we need.”
After the Tree of Life shooting, a group of survivors visited Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., where a white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners during a church service in 2015. Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of New Light Congregation was in the building during the shooting at Tree of Life, and went on the Charleston trip. He said the group had some interesting conversations when they were together: about God, about love, and about forgiveness.
“In Judaism, we don't believe in this concept of grace,” Perlman said. “That you can automatically forgive someone in your heart without them being around.”
Some of the church congregants told him they had forgiven the Mother Emanuel shooter, but for the Jews affected by the shooting at Tree of Life, that isn’t a possibility, said Perlman. In Judaism, the person who has sinned has to ask for forgiveness, from the person they have wronged and from God.
“We call it Teshuvah. A person really needs to ... turn to God and ask God to help him with these thoughts and ask him to purify his heart. And to ask forgiveness of other people he's hurt,” said Perlman. “Then he can make his way around to changing himself.”
Teshuvah means “return;” it’s a return to God, to who a person was before the sin. It’s a spiritual journey undertaken by the person who has wronged another. It is a way to heal both the trauma caused by the sin and the trauma that caused the sin.
Former white supremacist Tony McAleer is quick to point out that one’s trauma does not absolve them of responsibility for their actions.
“I’m not trying to blame anything on my childhood. Everything I did I chose to do,” he said. “Someone asked me once, ‘Tony, you seem like such a nice guy. How did you lose your humanity? I said, ‘I didn't lose it. I traded it for acceptance and approval ‘til there was nothing left.’”
But advocates also say, the more one’s traumas are recognized and addressed, the more able one is to be a positive force in the world.
“That's where responsibility really lies,” said Bloom. “Once you understand what's happened to you and how it's affected you, then the rest of your life becomes choice. It's your choice then, whether to go on doing the things that are destructive or to do things that really build your life in a positive direction … whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution.”
(Love is) stronger than hate
“If you want to see a city that is tolerant, accepting, inclusive and compassionate, you should go to Pittsburgh,” said Michael Keaton at a gathering at Point State Park in early November, as rain fell from a dull, gray sky.
A few days earlier, Pitt student Kathryn Fleisher appealed to a crowd of students that filled the street in front of the Cathedral of Learning.
“Our community will continue to be built upon a foundation of compassion, one fortified by love, strengthened by patience, reinforced by open-mindedness.”
Mayor Bill Peduto, ruddy-faced in the blue light of an October morning, the day after the Tree of Life attack said on the Today Show, “We fight hate with love. We fight it with compassion.”
If trauma is a cycle, then so is love, advocates argue. In the days, weeks and months after the Tree of Life shooting, Pittsburghers mourned, but they also radiated love, compassion and neighborliness.
“That was really a deeply beautiful and profound moment,” said Abernathy, who mobilized his trauma response team to provide on-the-spot counseling the day of the shooting. “A moment that was, in my experience, filled with love, and ... hope, even in the immediate aftermath of that tragedy.”
Allderdice High School students staged a sad, quiet vigil the night of the shooting. The next evening, as overflow crowds watched on a screen set up outside Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Wasi Mohammed of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh announced his organization had raised more than $70,000 for victims; it would go on to raise more than $200,000. “Stronger than Hate” posters started appearing in the windows of shops and homes. Fundraisers took the form of everything from open mic nights to T-shirt sales. In all, more than $6 million would be raised for the victims, their families and the congregations.
After the shooting, Pittsburghers had an urge to come together, to heal, to give their time and money, to accept and listen to one another. Pittsburgh vowed to be “stronger than hate,” but no one presented a clear, collective understanding of what that would truly mean.
Indeed, translating love, compassion, healing and empowerment into public policy is challenging, said Drexel public health professor Sandra Bloom.
In public health, there are three levels of prevention: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary prevention efforts are universal precautions -- think of seatbelt laws or hand-washing campaigns -- that are aimed at the entire population. Secondary prevention works with at-risk communities, such as children living in poverty, to intervene as early as possible to mitigate adverse experiences. Tertiary prevention is treating people who have already experienced trauma to minimize harm, both to themselves and society.
The work Tony McAleer does to bring people out of white supremacy is tertiary prevention. Secondary prevention describes much of the work FOCUS Pittsburgh does, by providing meals, backpacks and health care services.
“What we're trying to figure out is what are universal precautions around the issue of trauma,” said Bloom. “The whole field is wrestling with that.”
That is to say, what is the hand-washing campaign for a trauma-informed society?
Bloom wrote in the Journal of Trauma and Dissociation in 2016 that these universal precautions “always appear to be left out of meaningful discourse at a policy level, as if such change is impossible to achieve.”
The task is daunting, Bloom said, but doable. There needs to be a broad campaign to inform people that trauma can be healed, that violence is preventable, that “we could all live in a land of plenty," she wrote.
“We could stop what we do,” Bloom said. “We could decide as a species we are not going to engage in violence anymore because the price is too high.”
Bloom is part of a group of people advocating for and implementing trauma-informed policies in Philadelphia. Established in 2010, the Trauma Transformation Initiative now reaches across schools, the criminal justice system, housing agencies and behavioral health agencies.
More locally, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services is working to integrate trauma-informed principles into all of its programs and services. Pittsburgh Public Schools has several efforts underway related to trauma-informed care. The city of Pittsburgh isn’t currently pursuing broad, trauma-informed policies, but a spokesman said “we'd definitely be open to looking” at it.
However, it’s not just up to governments to shift the paradigm, said Abernathy.
“If we are going to limit suffering in the world, then each and every one of us has work to do,” he said. “All of us could do better.”