Pittsburgh synagogue terror attack victims identified

Local law enforcement described the worst crime scene they had ever witnessed, and said they would need up to a week to process evidence there.

By
October 28, 2018 12:25

11 killed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, October 28, 2018 (Reuters)

11 killed in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, October 28, 2018 (Reuters)

 
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A nation still shaking from a massacre targeting American Jews on Shabbat learned the names of the fallen on Sunday.

Among the victims was a new grandparent, brothers and spouses praying together, and one woman old enough to have lived through the Holocaust.

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Local law enforcement described the worst crime scene they had ever witnessed, and said they would need up to a week to process evidence there.

They charged Robert Gregory Bowers, 46, who surrendered at the scene yelling antisemitic epithets, with 29 federal counts, including 11 counts of murdering individuals who were exercising their religious beliefs. Authorities are treating his mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation as a hate crime.

Bowers faces the death penalty on several charges.

“We know that we as a society are better than this,” said the city mayor, Bill Peduto, characterizing Saturday’s massacre as “the darkest day in Pittsburgh’s history.”

“We know that hatred will never win out, that those that try to divide us because of the way we pray, or where our families are from around the world, will lose,” he added.

Four rabbis helped police identify the deceased, a process that concluded shortly after the shooting stopped, according to officials. But friends of the victims told The Jerusalem Post that their families waited anxiously all day on Saturday for calls from law enforcement confirming their kin were amongst the dead.

“That was part of the torture,” said Toby Neufeld, a teacher at Tree of Life for more than 30 years. She knew several of the victims and was particularly close with Stein, the grandfather of a 7-month-old.

“It’s just total shock and disbelief,” Neufeld said. “We couldn’t believe that would happen, especially in Pittsburgh. We are a tight-knit community.”

Police believe that Bowers acted alone when he decided, on a rainy Saturday, to open fire on members of Pittsburgh’s vibrant Jewish community of Squirrel Hill, one of the largest concentrations of Jewish Americans nationwide. This quaint eastern corner of Pittsburgh is full of kosher bakeries and restaurants, and Tree of Life, at the corner of Wilkins and Shady avenues, is home to three congregations of different denominations.

Neighbors said that Bowers displayed no outward signs of bigotry or antisemitism, and had no prior criminal record. But his online presence offered warning signs.

On Gab.com, a social media site popular for those on the alt-Right convinced that Twitter and Facebook are biased against conservatives, Bowers frequently engaged in antisemitic conspiracy theories, recently linking Jewish organizational efforts to aid refugees with the progress of a caravan of migrants making its way through Central America.

“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” Bowers wrote ahead of the shooting. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Jewish organizations reacted to the event warning that a measurable spike in antisemitic acts since 2015 may have reached a violent inflection point. The American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and representatives of all three major Jewish denominations issued statements expressing alarm that the nation’s political discourse had stoked dormant hatred toward Jews.

In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the world to combat antisemitism after Israel’s weekly cabinet held a moment of silence in memory of the 11 victims of  Saturday’s shooting in Pittsburgh.

“Today, regretfully, we refer to the United States, where the largest antisemitic crime in its history took place, but we also mean, of course, Western Europe, where there is a tough struggle against the manifestations of a new antisemitism,” Netanyahu said. “Of course there is also the old and familiar antisemitism, and that of radical Islam. On all these fronts we must stand up and fight back against this brutal fanaticism. It starts with the Jews, but never ends with the Jews.”

Jerusalem’s Old City walls were illuminated on Sunday evening with Israeli and United States flags and the inscription “We are with you, Pittsburgh,” as Israeli officials across the spectrum expressed their grief at the news and solidarity with the families of victims.

“It is very difficult to exaggerate the horror of the murder of Jews who had gathered in a synagogue on Shabbat and were murdered just because they were Jews,” the prime minister continued. “Israel stands at the forefront with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh, with all Jewish communities in the US and with the American people. We stand together, at the forefront, against antisemitism and displays of such barbarity.”

America’s national discussion over the shooting centered the morning after on familiar themes. Guests on Sunday morning shows questioned whether US President Donald Trump was the root of recent political violence, or simply the symptom of a divided nation, and wondered if it is possible to mitigate an epidemic of gun violence nationwide without impeding on Second Amendment rights. Bowers used a lightweight semi-automatic AR-15 in the attack, identical to the weapons used in mass shootings in Aurora, Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, Sutherland Springs and San Bernardino in recent years. Each shooting resulted in mass casualties.

Trump ordered flags on federal buildings to be lowered to half-staff through Wednesday. At a rally in southern Illinois, and in subsequent posts on Twitter, he used unequivocal language to condemn the attack as an antisemitic event and offered the full resources of the federal government to handle the case.

“All of America is in mourning over the mass murder of Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. We pray for those who perished and their loved ones, and our hearts go out to the brave police officers who sustained serious injuries,” he wrote.

“This evil Anti-Semitic attack is an assault on humanity,” he continued. “It will take all of us working together to extract the poison of Anti-Semitism from our world. We must unite to conquer hate.”

But the president has had trouble earning the trust of the American Jewish community ever since his 2016 presidential campaign. Throughout that race, he embraced terms such as “globalist” and “America First” first adopted by American fascists and neo-Nazis in years past, and referred to Jews as dealmakers and moneymen.

Then as president, Trump refused to condemn neo-Nazis rioting in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the murder of a counterprotester. A recent poll found that 70% of American Jews currently disapprove of the president’s handling of rising antisemitism nationwide.

The Tree of Life shooting, like so many others before it, took on political relevance as both parties head into a contentious and consequential midterm election just 10 days from now. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement that Americans should seize the moment to elect leaders in favor of gun control and who would fight discrimination.

“No community should be shattered by such bigotry,” Perez said. “As a nation, we must elect leaders who will fight for common-sense gun laws. And we must speak out against antisemitism and all those who enable it.”

Before Saturday evening’s rally, Trump told reporters that he might cancel the event due to the shooting. But, choosing instead to go through with it, he joked on stage that his concern with the event was, in fact, his bad hair day, ruffled and soaked after taking questions from journalists regarding the Pittsburgh massacre outside and in the rain.

Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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