PITTSBURGH (REUTERS) - A 97-year-old woman, two brothers in their 50s and a married couple in their 80s were among the 11 worshippers shot dead at a Pittsburgh synagogue during Sabbath prayers in the deadliest attack ever on America’s Jewish community, officials said on Sunday (Oct 28).
The names of the dead were released a day after a gunman, armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, stormed the Tree of Life temple in the city’s heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood yelling “All Jews must die” as he opened fire on the congregation.
In addition to the 11 mostly elderly victims who were killed, six people, including four police officers, were wounded before the suspect was arrested.
Robert Bowers, who has a history of posting anti-Semitic material online, was charged under federal hate crime statutes, and could face the death penalty if convicted.
“The fact that this attack took place during a worship service makes it even more heinous,” US Attorney Scott Brady said. Brady told a news conference that Bowers was to make his first court appearance on Monday afternoon before a federal judge in Pittsburgh.
The Squirrel Hill area was home to the late Fred Rogers whose long-running children’s television show Mr Rogers Neighborhood featured lessons on friendship and kindness.
Five of the dead were from Squirrel Hill and the rest were from other parts of Pittsburgh.
The mass shooting sparked security alerts at houses of worship around the country and condemnation from politicians and religious leaders.
Some complained that the confrontational, nationalistic rhetoric of US President Donald Trump has encouraged right-wing extremists and fed a surge in activity by hate groups.
Trump, who quickly branded Saturday’s shooting an act of pure evil and called on Americans to rise above hatred, was already facing similar criticism ahead of the Nov 6 congressional elections following a spate of pipe bombs mailed last week to some of his prominent critics.
The targets, mostly Democrats, included former US President Barack Obama.
CLIMATE OF DIVISION
“Honestly I think this president’s whole modus operandi is to divide us. He gets up in the morning with new and inventive ways to divide us,” US Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who is Jewish, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” broadcast on Sunday.
Trump told reporters the killings might have been prevented if there had been an armed guard at the temple. Synagogue officials said police would only normally have been present for security on high holidays.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto on Sunday said keeping guns out of the hands of irrational people was a better way to prevent violence, and called for unity in facing Saturday’s tragedy.
“We’ll get through this darkest day of Pittsburgh history by working together,” he told reporters.
Among those killed were: David Rosenthal, 54; his brother Cecil Rosenthal, 59; Sylvan Simon, 86, and his wife Bernice Simon, 84; Joyce Fienberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. The eldest victim was Rose Mallinger, 97, of Squirrel Hill.
US Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Fox News Sunday that DHS officials visited the Pittsburgh synagogue in March to provide training on active shooter responses.
FBI Special Agent Robert Jones said he did not know why Bowers targeted the Tree of Life synagogue. Authorities believe the suspect entered the synagogue, opened fire on the worshippers and was fleeing when he encountered a police officer, Jones said.
The two exchanged gunfire, he said, and Bowers reentered the building before a police tactical squad arrived. Bowers surrendered and was taken to a hospital where he was listed in fair condition with multiple gunshot wounds.
News of the attack spread quickly through the surrounding neighborhood. Congregants at a nearby Synagogue, Beth Shalom, were alarmed before learning that the perpetrator had been captured, said Ira Frank, a past president of the congregation.
He said he could imagine a scene of pandemonium if the assailant showed up at his temple.
“What was going through my mind was people who were going to walk, or children who run in front of their parents, behind their parents, people in wheelchairs, in strollers,” he said.
About half of the congregants at Beth Shalom do not drive on the Sabbath, he said.
Federal prosecutors charged Bowers late on Saturday with 29 criminal counts including violating US civil rights laws. Bowers’ virulent anti-Semitic views were evident in prolific online postings.
In one, early on Saturday, he wrote that a Jewish refugee group, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, “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 Anti-Defamation League and Jewish Council for Public Affairs described Saturday’s rampage as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.
In Israel, cabinet ministers stood for a moment of silence on Sunday to honor the victims of the shooting.