A gunman armed with an assault rifle killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue during Shabbos-morning services in what the Anti-Defamation League called “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”
Law enforcement officials said Robert Bowers – a 46-year-old man with a history of making virulently anti-Semitic statements online – was taken into custody after a gun battle with police and is expected to face federal hate crime charges.
“Justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” said Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Brady said Bowers could be charged for what he called a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate.”
Authorities described a rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, that was stunning in its savagery.
“This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said Robert Allan Jones, Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office. “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.”
All 11 people killed were adults, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said. Six people were also wounded, four of them police officers responding to the gunfire, he said.
Witnesses told police Bowers burst into the synagogue shouting anti-Semitic statements and began firing. Hissrich said authorities began to receive calls about an active shooter at the synagogue at 9:54 a.m. and officers were dispatched one minute later.
Jones said that Bowers entered the synagogue, gunned down 11 people and was leaving when he encountered responding officers. He fired at an officer who was wounded and then went back into the synagogue to hide, Jones said. More officers responded, and after an exchange of gunfire, Bowers was taken to a hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, authorities said.
Hissrich declined to say if Bowers was speaking to authorities, and it was not immediately clear if he had an attorney.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the shooting “reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty.”
Bowers appeared to have repeatedly targeted Jewish people using an account on the social media site gab, which is popular with white supremacists and far-right users. Gab deactivated an account under Bowers’s name shortly after the shooting Saturday.
Messages posted by the account under his name, recovered before it was deactivated, included white supremacist symbols and anti-Semitic messaging. Recent postings specifically focused on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, which is one of nine organizations that works with the federal government to resettle refugees in American communities.
“HIAS 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,” reads a posting on the account that appears to have been published just before the shooting Saturday morning.
Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of HAIS, has no formal relationship with the Tree of Life synagogue, but has helped hundreds of refugees resettle in the Pittsburgh area in recent years.
“Our agency is the oldest refugee agency in the world, and we’ve seen some horrible dark periods in our time, and we’ve seen plenty of hate, and refugees by definition are fleeing hate,” Hetfield said. “But the United States is supposed to be a place of refuge, and a synagogue is supposed to be a place of refuge.”
The account that appeared to belong to Bowers was rife with bigoted messaging. His biography on the site read “jews are the children of satan” and his background photo was a radar gun reading “1488,” a popular white supremacist symbol.
For weeks, “Robert Bowers” was enraged by the national Jewish group HIAS’s efforts to hold Shabbat services for refugees, according to the archives messages.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the user wrote hours before the shooting. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Trump on Saturday described the shooting in Pittsburgh as “pure evil” and an “anti-Semitic act.”
“It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime,” President Donald Trump said Saturday afternoon. “That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.”
Earlier Saturday, Trump also suggested that armed security at the synagogue might have prevented the attack. He has regularly suggested that after shooting rampages, even following some high-profile massacres that occurred despite law enforcement officers being present.
The violence Saturday — the latest in America’s seemingly unending string of mass shootings at seemingly safe public places — occurred at a synagogue in a leafy residential enclave near Carnegie Mellon University, one of the larger predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the United States. Its “traditional, progressive and egalitarian” congregation was formed in 1864.
It’s the “center of Jewish life on Shabbat morning,” said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of the Rodef Shalom Congregation, two blocks away.
It is unclear how many were in the synagogue at the time of the shooting, which occurred at around the time synagogues around the country host regular services for the Shabbat holiday. According to an online calendar, there would have been a Shabbat service scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Saturday.
The synagogue’s main sanctuary, a cavernous space with soaring stained-glass windows that depict the story of creation, can hold up to 1,250 guests, according to the Tree of Life’s website.
Police in Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all said they were increasing patrols at synagogues and other houses of worship following the Pittsburgh attack as precautionary measures.
The shooting comes during an sharp spike in anti-Semitic activities in the U.S., according to an Anti-Defamation League report released earlier this year. From 2016 to 2017, instances of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism and assault increased 57 percent, the largest single-year jump since ADL began tracking the data in the 1970s.
Ben Opie, 55, who lives across the street from Tree of Life, said his wife was leaving for a volunteer duty at about 11 a.m. when police shouted at her to get back inside the house. Officers banged on neighbors’ doors and told them to stay locked inside.
Two hours later, after many of the police vehicles had left the neighborhood, Opie said he’s still shaking.
“It’s just,” Opie said, pausing, his voice trembling. “Sorry, it’s shaking me more than usual.”
By Saturday afternoon, members of the synagogue were gathering at a grief center waiting to hear about friends and family members caught in the shooting.
“It’s one of my biggest fears,” said Chuck Diamond, who worked as a rabbi at Tree of Life for seven years. “When I was leading the congregation, I always had in the back of my mind that something like this will happen. It’s a terrible thing to feel.”
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Deanna Paul, Avi Selk, Amy B Wang, Mark Berman ·