Nation & World

11 die in gunman's attack on Pittsburgh synagogue

People mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018.   REUTERS/John Altdorfer
People mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018. REUTERS/John Altdorfer
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PITTSBURGH — A man with a history of making anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant social media posts burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on Saturday morning services that included a baby-naming ceremony, killing 11 people and wounding six more, authorities said.

The shooting, which began shortly before 10 a.m. EDT, was probably “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States” and is a worrying new peak in violence against Jewish Americans in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has monitored anti-Semitism in the U.S. for more than a century.

U.S. Attorney General. Jeff Sessions said federal prosecutors, who are investigating the killings as a hate crime, could seek the death penalty against the suspected shooter, who was in custody.

The shooting unfolded over 20 minutes at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, known locally for once being the real-life neighborhood of the public-television host Fred Rogers.

The gunman was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, officials said. He yelled, “All Jews must die!” as he walked into the synagogue, police told local television reporters.

The suspected gunman, identified as Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, wounded two of the first officers who arrived at the scene as he tried to leave and later wounded two more SWAT officers inside the synagogue before he was shot and taken into custody, officials said.

Watching officers run into the danger “and remove people and get them to safety was unbelievable,” Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said at a news conference.

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“Without their courage, this tragedy would have been far worse,” said Wendell Hissrich, Allegheny County public safety director. None of the dead were children. Officials said two of the wounded were in critical condition.

The suspect remained hospitalized Saturday afternoon.

“The Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty,” Sessions said in a statement Saturday afternoon.

Bob Jones, the FBI special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office, called the shooting “the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

“Members of the Tree of Life Synagogue conducting a peaceful service in their place of worship were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith,” he said.

Because the shooting is being treated as a hate crime, the FBI quickly took charge of the investigation, coordinating with local law enforcement, authorities said.

Bowers probably acted alone and had no known criminal record, Jones said.

A social media user under Bowers’ name had called Jews “the children of satan” and made posts before the attack alluding to neo-Nazi ideology and threatening HIAS, a refugee agency originally founded to assist Jews.

Law enforcement officials familiar with the case confirmed that they believe the posts were made by the shooting suspect.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” said a post made Saturday at 9:49 a.m. Saturday — just five minutes before police received the first 911 call from the synagogue.

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“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The post was made on Gab, a small social media service that is popular with white nationalists and other far-right users.

The reference to “optics” is a significant one among the small world of white nationalists and signals that the suspect had a familiarity with the political dynamics of the American white-nationalist movement. It alludes to debate among far-right figures over whether to avoid violence or aggression, which often draws negative attention to the movement from the general public.

Mark Hetfield, chief executive of HIAS, said he was “in a state of shock” to hear that his organization was named by the shooter.

“It’s horrible,” Hetfield said. The refugee resettlement group organized a “refugee Shabbat” event last week at which more than 300 synagogues across the country came together to “celebrate our tradition of welcoming refugees.” He said it was unclear if the Pittsburgh synagogue participated.

“It’s horrible that refugees are fleeing for aid, and the Jewish community is doing so much to embrace them and then this tragedy unfolds.”

HIAS, founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to assist Jews fleeing persecution in Russia, since 2000 has served a broad range of refugees of all faiths from around the world, helping them resettle in the U.S.

President Donald Trump called for armed guards at synagogues and implied that lax security by the synagogue was at least partially to blame for the high death toll.

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“If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” he said. “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly.”

Local officials said they were unaware of any security hired by the synagogue.

Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh said local synagogues have done “lots of training on things like active shooters, and we’ve looked at hardening facilities as much as possible.”

“This should not be happening, period,” he told reporters at the scene. “This should not be happening in a synagogue.”

Later, Trump called the attack an “anti-Semitic act” that “shocked and stunned” the nation and the world.

“It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime. That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on,” Trump told reporters.

Later, reading from a teleprompter while addressing the Future Farmers of America in Indianapolis, Trump said: “Today with one unified voice we condemn the historic evil of anti-Semitism and every other form of evil.”

Despite Trump’s reference to anti-Semitism as something relegated to the past, the ADL reported earlier this year that “anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017 — the largest single-year increase on record and the second-highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979.”

Although small by the standards of Los Angeles or New York, the Jewish community in Pittsburgh is one of the nation’s oldest, and Squirrel Hill, a tree-lined residential neighborhood about 10 minutes east of downtown, has been its hub since the 1930s.

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About a quarter of the metropolitan region’s Jewish population, estimated at roughly 50,000, lives in the neighborhood, according to a study released earlier this year by Pittsburgh’s Jewish Federation.

The synagogue is a large concrete building, its facade punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from the former Czechoslovakia, according to its website. Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf called the shooting an “absolute tragedy.”

“We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life,” Wolf said. “But we have been saying ‘this one is too many’ for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”

The banner image on the Gab account with Bowers’ name featured the number “1488,” a reference to the “14 words” embraced by white nationalists — commonly known as “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” — along with 88, which is numerical code for HH, or “Heil Hitler.”

A spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremists, said, however, that the suspect “was not on our radar” before the attack.

The shooting is likely to draw attention to Gab, a service that has repeatedly drawn controversy over the last year for its willingness to allow white nationalists and neo-Nazis who have been banned from more mainstream platforms such as Twitter.

Gab said in a statement that it was “saddened and disgusted by the news of violence in Pittsburgh,” and said it has a “zero tolerance policy” for terrorism and violence on the service.

The service, which has often been criticized for hosting far-right users, also preemptively defended itself from another expected wave of public criticism after the shooting.

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“We refused to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community,” saying the service’s mission is “to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.”

Gab said it took “proactive action” to “immediately” contact law enforcement, including the FBI, and that “we are ready and willing to work with law enforcement to see that justice is served.”

(Sarah D. Wire in Pittsburgh, Jaweed Kaleem in Los Angeles and Jackie Calmes in Washington contributed to this report.)

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