US 'Synagogue shooter' charged with murder

A man suspected of killing 11 people in a synagogue in Pittsburgh has been charged with murder – in what is believed to be the worst anti-Semitic attack in recent US history.

Robert Bowers, 46, is accused of opening fire at the Tree of Life synagogue during its Sabbath service. He faces 29 criminal counts, including use of a firearm to commit murder. Federal prosecutors say they will also file hate crime charges, and the suspect could face the death penalty. President Donald Trump described the attack as a “wicked act of mass murder”. Six people – including four police officers – were injured in Saturday’s attack. The suspect was also wounded in a shootout with police. Hundreds of people – from the neighbourhood and also all across Pittsburgh – later gathered for an interfaith vigil for the victims of the attack in the synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Sophia Levin, a local resident and one of the organisers, told the BBC people wanted to be “together, not alone”, and the vigil would help heal the city. President Trump said he would visit Pittsburgh soon. He also ordered US flags at government buildings to be flown at half-mast until 31 October.

What are the charges?

The 29 charges were announced in a statement issued by the US Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Pennsylvania:
  • Eleven counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death
  • Eleven counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence
  • Four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer
  • Three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence
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How did the shooting unfold?

On Saturday morning, worshippers had gathered at the synagogue for a baby naming ceremony during the Sabbath. Squirrel Hill has one of the largest Jewish populations in Pennsylvania and this would have been the synagogue’s busiest day of the week. Police said they received first calls about an active shooter at 09:54 local time (13:54 GMT), and sent officers to the scene a minute later. According to reports, Mr Bowers, a white male, entered the building during the morning service armed with an assault rifle and three handguns. The gunman had already shot dead 11 people and was leaving the synagogue after about 20 minutes when he encountered Swat officers and exchanged fire with them, FBI agent Robert Jones said. The attacker then moved back into the building to try to hide from the police. He surrendered after a shootout, and is now being treated in hospital for what has been described as multiple gunshot wounds.
The Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue, Pittsburgh
The Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh
The crime scene was “horrific”, Pittsburgh’s Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich told reporters. “One of the worst I’ve seen, and I’ve [worked] on some plane crashes. It’s very bad.” Mr Hissrich said no children were among the casualties.

What do we know about the gunman?

US media said he had shouted “All Jews must die” as he carried out the attack. Social media posts by someone with the name Robert Bowers were also reported to be full of anti-Semitic comments.
Suspected attacker Robert Bowers
Suspected attacker Robert Bowers
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FBI special agent Bob Jones told a press conference that Mr Bowers did not appear to be known to authorities prior to the attack. He said that any motive remains unknown but that authorities believe he was acting alone.
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What has been President Trump’s reaction?

He called the shooting a “terrible, terrible thing”. “To see this happen again and again, for so many years, it’s just a shame,” he told reporters. He described the gunman as a “maniac” and suggested the US should “stiffen up our laws of the death penalty”. “These people should pay the ultimate price. This has to stop,” he said. Mr Trump added that the incident had “little to do” with US gun laws. “If they had protection inside, maybe it could have been a different situation.” Former US President Barack Obama voiced a different position on the ongoing gun law debate, tweeting: “We have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”

What about other reaction?

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement that the incident was an “absolute tragedy” and that such acts of violence could not be accepted as “normal”. The president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Jeff Finkelstein, said his “heart goes out to all these families”. “Now I’m just sad. This should not be happening. Period. It should not be happening in a synagogue. It should not be happening in our neighbourhood here in Squirrel Hill,” he said. Jonathan Greenblatt, the head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a Jewish non-governmental organisation that fights anti-Semitism, said he was “devastated”. “We believe this is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” he said in a statement.
Map shows Pittsburgh in the US state of Pennsylvania
World leaders also condemned the attack, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said he was “heartbroken and appalled”, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who said: “We all have to stand up against anti-Semitism, everywhere.” Extra police officers have been deployed at synagogues and Jewish centres across the US after the attack.
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Armed police guard a synagogue in New York
Armed police are guarding synagogues in New York
The BBC’s Dan Johnson in Washington says the shootings come at a tense time in the US, after a week in which mail bombs were sent to critics of Mr Trump, ahead of crucial mid-term elections next month. BBC]]>