Eleven people were killed and six others wounded or otherwise injured when an anti-Semitic terrorist opened fire at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday morning.
As of this writing, the murder victims, all adults, have not yet been publicly identified. Four of the wounded have been described as police officers.
The shooter, who has been identified as Robert Bowers, 46, is in custody. He is said to have shouted, “All Jews must die!” during the shooting spree. The attack occurred a little before 10 a.m. on Saturday morning. The synagogue is in the Squirrel Hill section of eastern Pittsburgh, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Typically, the New York Times reports, there are about 75 people gathered for Saturday Shabbat (Sabbath) observance. There is usually no security, except for high holy days when the number of worshippers swells to well over a thousand.
Bowers surrendered after a shootout with police during which he was apparently wounded. He initially encountered police as he was fleeing the synagogue. He retreated back into the building during the gunfire, barricading himself in a third-floor office.
Several reports indicate that Bowers maintained a social-media account that was rife with anti-Semitic slurs and conspiracy theories about Jews. In the hours before the shooting spree, he apparently posted about a Jewish nonprofit organization called “HIAS”:
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.
The term “invaders” apparently refers to refugees in the United States. A few weeks back, Bowers apparently authored a post objecting to a Shabbat ceremony HIAS was planning for refugees around the country: “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Bowers’s social-media account, which has now been taken down, was on a network called “Gab,” which the Times says describes itself as a free-speech haven.
Witnesses relate that police exhibited extraordinary valor, racing to the active-shooting scene. Bowers is said to have wounded two local police officers and two members of the SWAT team that responded. The four officers are reportedly in stable condition.
Both the State of Pennsylvania and the Justice Department have filed charges. This could lead to a controversy over capital punishment. The federal charges are of the dubious “hate crimes” variety and would — ludicrously — force a jury to confront the question whether the massacre occurred in or affected interstate commerce. The state murder charges are straightforward. Yet conviction on the federal charges could result in the death penalty; by contrast, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, imposed a moratorium on the death penalty after he was elected in 2015. His Republican opponent in the upcoming election, Scott Wagner, favors the death penalty but he is way behind in the polls.
I will explain in a subsequent post why the Justice Department should stand down for now, paving the way for state authorities in Pennsylvania to prosecute Bowers.