This past Saturday, Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old resident of Pittsburgh, stormed the Tree of Life synagogue with a semi-automatic rifle and shot worshipers during Shabbat services. As the shootout wore on, some police officers were injured as well.
Eleven people died, and six were wounded. It now stands as the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States. During his attack, Bowers reportedly shouted, "All Jews must die."
The FBI confirmed that Bowers was not previously known to law enforcement. He has been charged with 29 counts of criminal violence and firearm offenses.
Oren Segal, the director of the Anti Defamation Legue's Center on Extremism, said, “Unfortunately, in the atmosphere we are in, as shocking as these incidents always are, they are not surprising. Anti-Semitism is the lifeblood of extremism, and violence is never that far behind.”
In its annual report on anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, the ADL found a 57 percent rise of incidents in 2017 over 2016. Incidents in the report included bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters.
“We have seen acts of violence. What’s new is the context of the acts of violence,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a group that works to "strengthen inclusive democracy."
“I have never seen this coupling of political violence with political rhetoric before,” Ward said. “It has primarily come out of the margins, and what’s different about this moment and chilling about this moment is that the rhetoric is now coming out of the mainstream, and it’s giving permission to people on the margins to act out.”
At a vigil Sunday evening, Rabbi Jeffrey Meyers said, “It starts with speech. It has to start with you as our leaders. My words are not intended as political fodder. I address all equally. Stop the words of hate.” Two US senators were in attendance as the crowd cheered Meyers statements.
President Trump and his team are, of course, taking a different strategy. “The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country,” Trump wrote on Twitter last night. “Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!”
This morning, Kellyanne Conway, who serves as a counselor to the president, said on FOX & Friends that the shooting was due to "the anti-religiosity in this country that is somehow in vogue, and funny, to make fun of anybody of faith and is constantly making fun of people who express religion, the late night comedians, the unfunny people on TV shows."
"It’s always anti-religious. And remember: These people were gunned down in a place of worship. As were the people in South Carolina several years ago. And they were there because they’re people of faith, and it’s that faith that needs to bring us together. This is no time to be driving God out of the public square," she continued.
No, Kellyanne, you are wrong, as usual. The shooter was not "anti-religious." He was a conservative Christian conspiracy theorist who posted neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda frequently online.
Conway and Trump seem pretty determined to spin these attacks in an attempt to appear as strong as possible while the country heads into the midterm elections next week.
The tragic deaths of these people need to focus us on addressing the toxic political and social climate that encouraged Bowers to do this. Until we can find a way to come together and discuss how we as a society can discover common ground and shared values, we will keep producing people like Bowers.
You can read a follow-up post on Tree of Life here.