Washington: Authorities have named the 11 people killed on Saturday when a man armed with three pistols and a semi-automatic assault-style rifle attacked a synagogue in Pittsburgh — the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States.
The dead include a 97-year-old woman, a husband and wife, and two brothers — all of whom were at services inside the Tree of Life synagogue, when Robert Bowers allegedly burst in through an open door, screaming anti-Semitic slurs and firing away. The Pittsburgh resident, 46, is also accused of wounding six other people, including three police officers shot during a firefight.
“They’re committing genocide to my people,” the suspect told a SWAT officer after being shot and captured, according to a federal criminal complaint released Sunday. “I just want to kill Jews.”
The killing has sparked a flood of condemnation and warnings about the rise of hate speech.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto called the attack the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history,” after the victims’ names were read out Sunday morning, and disputed US President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the synagogue should have had armed guards.
“We will not try to rationalise irrational behaviour,” he told reporters. “We will work to eradicate it. We will work to eradicate it from our city, and our nation, and our world. Hatred will not have a place anywhere.”
Under a persistent drizzle on Saturday, more than 500 people stood shoulder-to-shoulder during a vigil in front of Sixth Presbyterian Church of Pittsburgh to express shock and anger over the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue around the corner.
The authorities immediately labelled it a hate crime as they investigated the suspect’s history of anti-Semitic online screeds. The FBI said Bowers was not previously known to law enforcement. He was charged with 29 counts of federal crimes of violence and firearms offences, federal prosecutors said late on Saturday.
A man with Bowers’ name had posted anti-Semitic statements on social media before the shooting, expressing anger that a non-profit Jewish organisation in the neighbourhood has helped refugees settle in the United States.
Leaders condemn massacre
Bowers allegedly burst into the synagogue’s regular Saturday 9:45am service with an AR-15-style rifle and three handguns, authorities said. Witnesses told police he shouted anti-Semitic statements and began firing. The synagogue, in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh, did not have armed security guards.
Police received calls about an active shooter at 9:54am and dispatched officers a minute later. Police said Bowers left the building and encountered the responding officers, shooting one before retreating into the synagogue to hide.
Officers pursued Bowers to the synagogue’s third floor, according to a criminal complaint. He allegedly opened fire, shooting two officers multiple times and critically wounding one of them before he was wounded in the gun battle and captured.
According to the complaint, while Bowers was in custody with multiple gunshot wounds, he told a SWAT operator “that he wanted all Jews to die and also that they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people.”
Federal prosecutors filed 29 counts against Bowers, charging him with federal civil rights crimes. Bowers was charged with obstructing exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, using a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence, and obstructing exercise of religious beliefs resulting in an injury to a public safety officer.
Political, religious and civic leaders condemned Saturday’s massacre. “We simply cannot accept this violence as a normal part of American life,” Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, said during an afternoon news conference, his voice shaking. “These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Pennsylvanians, they’re not who we are as Americans.”
Trump denounced the massacre and said something needs to be done about such crimes, suggesting a more frequent and speedier use of the death penalty, saying it should be “brought into vogue.”
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing, what’s going on with hate in our country and frankly all over the world,” Trump said before boarding Air Force One on Saturday afternoon for a flight to Indianapolis.