3 reasons why Tree of Life shooter Robert Bowers shouldn't be executed - opinion

Robert Bowers was found guilty of murdering 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue and is facing the death penalty. Here are three reasons why he shouldn't be executed

 A CROWD attends a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue, marking one week after the deadly shooting there, in Pittsburgh, in 2018.  (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
A CROWD attends a vigil outside the Tree of Life synagogue, marking one week after the deadly shooting there, in Pittsburgh, in 2018.
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)

Robert Bowers was found guilty last week of murdering 11 beautiful Jewish souls while they were engaged in their observance of the holy Shabbat at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. 

I remember October 27, 2018, vividly, because I had no idea about the shooting until almost nine hours later; I was engaged in my own Shabbat observance, which includes disconnecting from electronics, so I only found out when I turned on my phone to tens of messages asking if I was ok and how I was holding up.

I was baffled – I was holding up fine, thank you very much – but a knot in my stomach grew as I opened the news and pitted when I learned that people like me, doing exactly what I did that morning, had been killed.

Bowers was found guilty on 63 felony charges, 22 of which carry the death penalty, including obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death. He and his lawyers never argued his innocence, but pleaded with the jury to spare his life because his actions were not intended to prevent worship, a key distinction in hate crime cases and because he allegedly suffers from multiple mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and epilepsy. 

I don’t really care if he meant to prevent worship or not, nor am I particularly interested in his bill of health, at least as far as its legal implication goes. I can’t comment on his mental health, but while it seems that he did intend to prevent worship – insofar as a dead man can’t pray – I don’t think he should receive the death penalty either way. In fact, I believe passionately that we must spare his life, for the following three reasons.

This image widely distributed by US media on October 27, 2018 shows a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ID picture of Robert Bowers (credit: AFP PHOTO)
This image widely distributed by US media on October 27, 2018 shows a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ID picture of Robert Bowers (credit: AFP PHOTO)

1) Robert Bowers could be corrected and educated about his false beliefs

First, I believe that conversations and dialogue can change the world, and can change individuals. I study Social Studies and Religion at Harvard, with a focus on civil discourse as a means of resolving First Amendment issues. I am also a practicing mediator in the State of Massachusetts; I spent last summer teaching underserved individuals in the DC how to negotiate and I am spending this summer working for The Carter Center’s Conflict Resolution team. All of these experiences have shown me the unbelievable power of listening patiently, practicing open-mindedness and putting oneself in the shoes of another. I’ve studied a plethora of scholars who outline theories of conflict resolution leading to incredible reconciliation. In mediating seemingly unresolvable conflicts, I’ve seen parties really hear each other, empathizing with the plight of the other and working toward compromise. I’ve been in civil dialogue with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum, and become close friends with them. These experiences have only served to bolster my belief in education, in the power of open-minded conversation and in dialogues between radically opposed parties. I am convinced we must at least give Bowers a chance to benefit from these opportunities.

Bowers held, maybe still holds, a litany of false beliefs, such as “Jews are the children of Satan,” or that “Jews are enemy Number One.” On the morning of the shooting, he posted, “HIAS [a Jewish immigrant aid organization] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

This claim, though hateful and false, is logical; if he truly believes that HIAS leads to the death of his people, then, of course, he should protect them  – though I would argue that killing others is not the way to protect your own. This is where I see an opportunity for intervention. If Bowers learned what HIAS really is and if he engaged in dialogue and education programs with and about Jews – and ultimately learned that his actions were hateful and wrong, he could even educate others about the harms of misinformation and antisemitism. I believe we would all be better for that.

I would be the first to volunteer to meet with him. I would first seek to understand on a deep level why he holds the views he does, and what truly motivated his horrific actions. I would want to know how he grew up, what his home and school environments were like, whether he had ever made Jewish friends and how he was taught to handle conflict or hardship. I’d want to know where he got his news, whom he trusted, which criteria he held as key for determining truth from fiction and why he felt so strongly about my people.

I would make him feel heard, expressing true curiosity and a genuine desire to hear him. I would be vulnerable so he could see me as a human like anyone else, and only after I felt he trusted me would I try to speak to him in his language. I’d attempt to convey information in a way he could trust and use personal narrative, like the time a kid told the class not to sit next to me because I was Jewish, to teach him the harms and falsehoods of antisemitism.

Perhaps pollyannishly, but without an utter lack of foundation, I believe Bowers could realize not only the harm of his actions but the greater implications of the hateful narrative in which he played a role. With that, he could not only repent but teach others, turning a horrific crime into an opportunity for change-making.

That’s not to say he should not be punished, but rather that he should not be irreversibly punished. People in jail can learn and change. Dead people cannot. White supremacists have changed before; if we really believe in the power of teshuva – repentance – we cannot be hypocritical about our belief in the possibility of rehabilitation or in forgiveness.

2) The death penalty is always ineffective and inhumane

Second, the death penalty is both ineffective and inhumane. Research suggests that studies claiming the death penalty has a high deterrence value were fundamentally flawed and there is no reliable evidence that the death penalty deters murder. Additionally, botched executions occur with terrifying frequency; they accounted for 33% of 2022 executions. And even when executions are administered correctly, they arguably violate the 8th Amendment, protecting against cruel and unusual punishment.

As the American Civil Liberties Union states, “It is cruel because it is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding and other corporal punishments were commonplace… It is unusual because only the United States of all the Western industrialized nations engages in this punishment.” Finally, it violates at least the spirit of due process, as its permanence prevents the possibility of a commuted sentence based on new evidence.

One might argue that murder is inhumane and those who commit it deserve to die, but there is a certain irony or double standard in that line of thinking. As you might say to your toddler, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” The death penalty undermines our commitment as Jews and as a society, to the sanctity of life.

3) Only God can judge the Tree of Life shooter

Finally, I believe that God should decide who lives and who dies. I recognize this is a non-falsifiable belief and I could just as easily hold the opposite, but it would be disingenuous to my position and to my belief system to omit this reason. The 11 Jews were murdered while serving God, who is almighty and just and before whom I stand daily with awe and humility.

The same God who “gives life, deals death” (Deuteronomy 32:39) – who are we to judge? On our holiest day, we recite the haunting Unetaneh Tokef: “In truth You are the judge, the exhorter, the all-knowing, the witness, He who inscribes and seals, remembering all that is forgotten… As a shepherd herds his flock, causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff, so do You cause to pass, count, and record, visiting the souls of all living, decreeing the length of their days.” It is God alone who can choose life or death.

I recognize that my position goes against the stated positions of nine of the 11 families of the victims, and I propose my view humbly before them, with compassion and a prayer for their suffering. But I must argue that we should not address the injustice of their murders with the injustice of another. I believe in the ability to change, I believe in second chances, and I believe in God as the arbiter of life and death.

The writer is a rising junior at Harvard College studying Social Studies and Religion, with an interest in conflict resolution around contentious issues of speech and religion.