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One year after the Tree of Life shooting, a plea for relentless love

Our nation remembers and heals one year after a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, yelled “All Jews must die” and opened fire, killing 11 congregants and wounding many others. As he surrendered to law enforcement, he told an officer that Jews “were committing genocide against [his] people.”

This rhetoric is sadly all too familiar to me.

On Sept. 15, 2001, my brother Balbir Singh Sodhi was murdered as he stood outside his gas station in Mesa, Ariz. CNN called it the first deadly hate crime after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the man who murdered him — now serving a life sentence in prison — had vowed “to shoot some towelheads” and called himself a patriot.

Since September 11, Sikhs have increasingly been targets of hate. This threat of violence is now a daily part of our lives, just as it is for our Jewish brothers and sisters. The FBI’s latest hate-crime report showed that, in 2017, anti-Sikh hate crimes were on the rise. The same year, the Anti-Defamation League also recorded the largest single-year increase of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States.

This is the current state of affairs in our nation. People are risking their lives each time they leave their house to go to work, to pray or to go to the store. Just this August, 22 people were killed and dozens more injured inside an El Paso Walmart — likely targeted because of their Latinx heritage, according to a manifesto that police suspect was written by the shooter.

Despite all of these tragic incidents, I don’t believe we should live our lives in fear. In fact, I believe the opposite — that we should choose to live in the spirit of what Sikhs call chardi kala, a relentless love and optimism even in the face of suffering and injustice.

I choose to live with chardi kala because that is how my Sikh faith guides me. Since my brother was killed, it is this spirit that has helped me heal. And I believe that in a time of despair, it is this love and optimism that can inspire us all. In 2016, I called the man who killed my brother and accepted his plea for forgiveness.

I cannot speak for the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, or tell them how best to grieve and heal. I can only say that my choice to offer forgiveness was a critical step in my healing process, and it came from a place of reconciliation that I hope will offer a source of light.

All of us can take steps to combat hate before it’s too late — the smallest of which begin with the youngest among us. Expanding and investing in education programs and equipping educators to teach about our nation’s rich diversity while encouraging our children to respect and value others will have a lasting impact on future generations. At a bare minimum, states should strive for more inclusive social studies standards and the teaching resources to implement them, like the latest C3 (a state guidance framework on social studies instruction) resources produced on Sikhism this year, as well as a renewed attention to much-needed anti-bullying efforts. If children are taught to act with understanding and acceptance for others, that will surely improve society as a whole.

Hate crime laws hold perpetrators of violence responsible, and equip police to serve and protect vulnerable communities. Accordingly, we should work to pass such laws in the four states — Wyoming, Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas — that still don’t have any hate crime measures at all, and strengthen others. Many other states still do not protect all vulnerable groups of people through the measures they have, and hate crimes remain underreported at the national level.

As adults, we lead by example for our children. It is our responsibility to provide them with a world that stands against bigotry. We are all threads in the fabric of this great nation, and it is up to each of us to make sure that rhetoric seeking to divide us does not win. Hate against anyone — based on where they’re from, how they worship, who they love or how they live — harms everyone. The only way we can heal is together.

As we honor the lives lost in Pittsburgh, I ask you this: Choose to show love and kindness toward others today. Choose to live your own life with relentless love and optimism.

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