A gunman who’s believed to have spewed anti-Semitic slurs and rhetoric on social media barged into a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday and opened fire, killing 11 people in one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in U.S. history.
The 20-minute attack at Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood left six others wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
The suspect, Robert Bowers, traded gunfire with police and was shot several times. Bowers, who was in fair condition at a hospital, was expected to face federal hate-crime charges.
“Please know that justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said at a late-afternoon news conference, characterising the slaughter as a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate.”
The shooting came amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, and one day after a Florida man was arrested and charged with mailing a series of pipe bombs to prominent Democrats.
The shooting also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Donald Trump said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf noted that once again “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
Trump said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh, but offered no details.
The shooting began just before 10 a.m. after authorities say Bower entered the large synagogue with an assault-style rifle and three handguns. Three separate Jewish congregations were conducting Sabbath services in different areas of the large building at the time of the attack, according to Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life.
The Pennsylvania attorney general’s office said it was told by victims that a brit milah — a ritual circumcision ceremony at which a baby boy also receives his Hebrew name — was also taking place, though law enforcement officials later said no children were among the dead or wounded.
“It is a very horrific crime scene,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director. “It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen.”
The mass shooting raised immediate alarm in Jewish communities around the country. Authorities in New York City, Chicago and elsewhere increased security at Jewish centres.
Bob Jones, head of the FBI’s Pittsburgh office, said that worshippers “were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith,” though he cautioned the shooter’s full motive was not yet known. In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the Justice Department would file hate crime and other charges against Bowers.
Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record, expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on a social media site called Gab, according to an Associated Press review of an archived version of the posts made under his name.
Gab confirmed the alleged shooter had a profile on its website, which is popular with far-right extremists.
Before the shooting, the poster believed to be Bowers also wrote that “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.”
HIAS is a nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. The organisation says it is guided by Jewish values and history.
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive officer of the Anti-Defamation League, said the group believes Saturday’s attack was the deadliest on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
“Our hearts break for the families of those killed and injured at the Tree of Life Synagogue, and for the entire Jewish community of Pittsburgh,” Greenblatt said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was “heartbroken and appalled” by the attack.
“The entire people of Israel grieve with the families of the dead,” Netanyahu said. “We stand together with the Jewish community of Pittsburgh. We stand together with the American people in the face of this horrendous anti-Semitic brutality. And we all pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded.”
More than 1,000 people, some holding candles, gathered for a street vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood on Saturday night in honour of the victims, whose names were not immediately released.
Trump called the shooting a “wicked act of mass murder” that “is pure evil, hard to believe and frankly something that is unimaginable.”
Trump has at times been accused by critics of failing to adequately condemn hate, such as when he blamed “both sides” for the violence at a Charlottesville white supremacist rally.
On Saturday, he said anti-Semitism “must be confronted anywhere and everywhere it appears.”
The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighbourhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.
The facade of the fortress-like concrete building is punctuated by rows of swirling, modernistic stained-glass windows illustrating the story of creation, the acceptance of God’s law, the “life cycle” and “how human-beings should care for the earth and one another,” according to its website. Among its treasures is a “Holocaust Torah,” rescued from Czechoslovakia.
Its sanctuary can hold up to 1,250 people.
Eisenberg, the former synagogue president, said officials at Tree of Life had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But he said security was a concern, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.
Chuck Diamond, a former rabbi at the synagogue who retired more than a year ago, said the building is locked during the week, and is outfitted with security cameras. “But on Sabbath it’s an open door,” he said.
“You know, you’re always worried that something would happen,” said Myron Snider, head of the cemetery committee for New Light Congregation, which meets at Tree of Life. Snider just got out of the hospital on Thursday and missed Saturday’s service.
“But you never dream that it would happen like this,” Snider added. “Just never ever dream that it would happen like this.”