Victims’ Stars of David outside the Tree of Life. Photo by Matt Rourke/AP
After killing 11 Jews at the Tree of Life and being wounded in a shoot-out with police, Robert Bowers was wheeled, yelling “Death to all Jews,” into Pittsburgh’s Allegheny General Hospital. There, he was first treated by the attending emergency room doctor and a registered trauma nurse. Both were Jewish. Now the nurse, Ari Mahler, has written a moving account of the day. The son of a rabbi and a former honors student at the University of Maryland, he worked as a financial consultant before going back to school to become a nurse. His entire family were members of the Tree of Life congregation; when he encountered Bowers, he still didn’t know whether or not his parents were among Bowers’ victims.
Soon after the shooting, Mahler wrote a brief, emotional Facebook post thanking those who had reached out to him and expressing the “hope my actions that day honored those that lost their lives in the best way possible.” This weekend, witnessing news stories about him and feeling alone, he reached out in turn with a post that began, “I am the Jewish Nurse. Yes, that Jewish nurse.” He describes experiencing a lot of anti-Semitism as a kid, and being less than shocked by the murders at a time when “the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.” Still, he writes, “I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes. All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion.”
“I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish,” writes Mahler. “Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse?” He said nothing to Bowers: “I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy.” He chose, in other words, to do his job, notes Dr. Jeff Cohen, president of the hospital and longtime member of Tree of Life, who later saw Bowers – “a very lost guy” – and praised Mahler: “It’s hard. You have this internal debate with yourself. Am I going to do what is right? And you do…The mission here is taking care of people….He was a patient.”
After treating Bowers, Mahler broke down crying; Cohen thanked him, told him he was proud of him, and sent him home to hug his parents. A week later, Mahler still wrestles with the events of the day. “Love. That’s why I did it,” he writes. “Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It reaffirms why we’re all here.” Indifferent to what Robert Bowers thinks, he wants to reach those reading his words: “Love is the only message I wish to instill…If my actions mean anything, love means everything.”