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‘Wicked Act’

by AFP

Brendan Smialowski—AFP

Eleven people shot dead at Pittsburgh Synagogue in America’s worst anti-Semitic attack in recent history

A man suspected of bursting into a Pittsburgh synagogue during a baby-naming ceremony and gunning down 11 people has been charged with murder, in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in recent U.S. history.

The suspect—identified as a 46-year-old Robert Bowers—reportedly yelled “All Jews must die” as he sprayed bullets into the Tree of Life synagogue during Sabbath services on Saturday before exchanging fire with police, in an attack that also wounded six people. He was taken into custody and transferred to hospital before being charged by U.S. prosecutors over the bloodshed, including with 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 11 counts of obstructing the exercise of religion resulting in death.

President Donald Trump denounced “a wicked act of mass murder,” while his daughter Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, declared: “America is stronger than the acts of a depraved bigot and anti-Semite.”

“This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us,” Trump told supporters at an election rally in Illinois where he drew loud cheers as he vowed to fully enforce the death penalty for such crimes. “We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate.”

Trump said he would soon travel to Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, where hundreds held a candlelit vigil late Saturday. The president ordered all flags at the White House and at public grounds, military posts and naval stations to be flown at half-staff through Oct. 31 as a mark of “solemn respect” for the victims.

Stephen Weiss, a 60-year-old member of the congregation, described hearing dozens of shots coming from the synagogue’s front lobby. “We had services going on in the chapel when we heard a loud noise,” he told the Tribune-Review newspaper. “I recognized it as gunshots.”

Authorities said Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and at least three handguns when he opened fire shortly before 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director described the scene after the attack as “horrific.”

“One of the worst that I’ve seen. I’ve been on plane crashes,” said Hissrich, who confirmed that 11 people were killed, and six injured. No children were among the casualties. “Hate Has No Home Here,” read a placard in a simple memorial, next to a heart-shaped U.S. flag—the same slogan was repeated in Hebrew and Arabic, with candles and bouquets of pink roses and carnations.

“It’s sickening. Outside of just the evil factor of it, who wakes up on a Saturday morning to do that?” said Pittsburgh chef Nathan, 42, who came to pay his respects but refused to give his second name.

The United States is witnessing a sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents, surging 57 percent from 2016 to 2017, to 1,986 from 1,267, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a civil rights group that has tracked anti-Semitism in the United States since the 1970s. The ADL said it believes the Pittsburgh shooting to be the deadliest such attack in U.S. history. “We are devastated,” said the group’s head Jonathan Greenblatt. “Our hearts break for the victims, their families, and the entire Jewish community.”

Bowers, who the FBI said was not previously known to law enforcement, appeared to be the author of rash anti-Semitic online posts, notably on the Gab.com website, where conspiracy theories are common.

A quote atop the Bowers page said “jews are the children of satan,” according to screenshots of the now-suspended account released by the Search for International Terrorist Entities (SITE) Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist movements.

Bowers faces a total of 29 charges, which authorities said could carry the death penalty. “The crimes of violence are based upon the federal civil rights laws prohibiting hate crimes,” a U.S. prosecutor statement said.

Saturday’s attack comes at a time of heightened tensions—a day after a Trump supporter from Florida was arrested for mailing explosive devices to Democrats and liberals, setting the country on edge ahead of close-fought elections on Nov. 6. Trump has been accused of fueling hate with divisive rhetoric.

“I think our president’s totally dividing us,” said Nathan, the chef who came to pay his respects in Pittsburgh. “If he doesn’t take some type of responsibility, shame on him. He’s making our place a very toxic place to live.”

The attack drew condemnation and messages of solidarity from world leaders, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declaring himself “heartbroken and appalled.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel slammed it an act of “blind anti-Semitic hatred.”

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a united front “to roll back the forces of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred.”

The Tree of Life Synagogue, whose congregation was founded more than 150 years ago, is located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood that is historically the heart of Jewish life in greater Pittsburgh. Neighbors in the quiet neighborhood came out of their homes to provide police with coffee to stave off the drizzle as officers manned roadblocks, sealing off all approaches to the scene.

A 2017 Brandeis University study found that more than 80 percent of its residents were concerned about rising anti-Semitism.

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