At least 11 people were killed, Wendell Hissrich, Allegheny County public safety director, said at a news conference. Authorities reported that at least six others were injured, including four police officers.
The shooting was probably “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has monitored anti-Semitism in the U.S. for more than a century.
Law enforcement officials identified the gunman as Robert Bowers, 46, who had apparently posted virulently anti-Semitic comments on social media before the shooting. Because the shootings are being treated as a federal hate crime, the FBI took charge of the investigation with local officials, authorities said.
The gunman yelled, “all Jews must die” as he walked in to the synagogue, police told local television reporters.
Police said Bowers was armed with an AK-47 rifle and two pistols, and that he fired at the first officers who arrived on the scene.
“It’s a very horrific crime scene,” Hissrich said at the scene of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. ”It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve been on some plane crashes. It’s very bad.”
A social media user using Robert 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 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 on Gab, a small social-media service that is popular with white nationalists and other far-right users. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
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 inner 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 whether 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 helped 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.
“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.”
It was not clear what type of security the Pittsburgh synagogue had.
Later, Trump called the attack an “anti-Semitic act” that “shocked and stunned” the nation and the world.
“You wouldn’t think this would be possible, but we just don’t seem to be able to learn from the past,” Trump said, reading from a teleprompter while addressing the Future Farmers of America in Indianapolis. “Today with one unified voice we condemn the historic evil of anti-Semitism and every other form of evil. And unfortunately evil comes in many forms.”
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.”
Squirrel Hill, a tree-lined residential neighborhood, about 10 minutes east of downtown, has been the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community since the 1930s.
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.
Jeff Finkelstein of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh told WPXI-TV that the organization’s security officer had alerted area synagogues and that they were on modified lockdown.
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 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.
Finkelstein 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.”
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 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.
“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.”
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