Authorities in Pittsburgh have released the identities of the 11 people shot dead in a synagogue – aged from 54 to 97 – as the Trump administration sought to fend off accusations that the president’s rhetoric was dividing people, rather than bringing them together.
Officials said they believed the suspected shooter, Robert Bowers, 46, who has been indicted with dozens of charges including 11 counts of murder, was working alone when he allegedly entered the Tree of Life synagogue on Saturday morning, armed with three hand guns and a semi-automatic rifle. Eight men and three women were killed in the deadliest ever attack on the Jewish community in the US, before police officers shot the suspect and took him into custody.
The FBI said they were treating the 20-minute incident as “a hate crime”, while Mayor Bill Peduto called it the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history”.
“We should be working to eliminate irrational behaviour and the empowerment of people who would seek to cause this type of carnage from continuing,” he said.
But less than two weeks before the midterm elections, and with the country already on edge after more than a dozen suspected pipe bombs were sent to senior Democrats and critics of Mr Trump, the president was accused of failing to try and unite the nation at such an unsettling time. Rather, he was charged with making things worse.
Following Saturday morning’s shooting at the synagogue, Mr Trump condemned the act of violence as an “antisemitic act” and “pure evil”. “There must be no tolerance for antisemitism in America or for any form of religious or racial hatred or prejudice,” he added.
Critics said the president’s language, frequently aggressive and mocking of people who disagreed with him, was helping to create an environment in which such acts were more likely.
“This president’s modus operandi is to divide us,” Democratic congressman Adam Schiff told CNN. “It’s not enough that a day on a tragedy he says the right words, if every other day of the year he’s saying things to bring us into conflict with one another.”
Supporters of the president, who on Friday had denied his words or actions had inspired accused mail bomber Cesar Sayoc, were quick to dismiss any link between Mr Trump’s language and the gun attack in Pittsburgh, whose alleged perpetrator reportedly wrote disparaging comments about the president on social media and said he was a “globalist, not a nationalist”. The word globalist is often used as a slur by antisemites.
Kirstjen Nielsen, the secretary of homeland security, told Fox News the president “has made it extraordinarily clear that we will never allow political violence to take root in this country”. Meanwhile, the vice president Mike Pence rejected the notion that confrontational rhetoric by Mr Trump other leaders had created a spike in political violence.
“People on both sides of the aisle use strong language about our political differences, but I just don’t think you can connect it to threats or acts of violence,” he told NBC.
In Pittsburgh, officials revealed several new details about the attack said to have been carried out by Mr Bowers, saying he was armed with three hand guns and a semi-automatic rifle. Victims were found in three different locations inside the synagogue in the Squirrel Hill area of the city.
In addition to the 11 fatalities, six other people were injured, including four police officers.
Dr Karl Williams, the chief medical examiner of Allegheny County, which includes the Pennsylvania city of Pittsburgh, revealed that the victims included a husband and wife, and two brothers. He said four rabbis from the synagogue had been working with his team, as they informed the victims’ families before they were named publicly.
Mr Williams named the victims as Joyce Fienberg, 75, Richard Gottfried, 65, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, David Rosenthal, 54, Bernice Simon, 84, Sylvan Simon, 87, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and 69-year-old Irving Younger. All lived close to the synagogue.
During a press conference on Sunday morning, FBI agent Robert Jones praised the police officers who responded to the incident and engaged in a shoot out to stop the gunman, who was shot and injured and taken into custody.
“Had he made it out of that facility, there is a strong possibility that additional violence would have occurred,” he said.
When pressed on that issue, Mr Jones said there was no evidence that the alleged shooter planned to attack another location, but that there would have likely been more shooting as he left the synagogue, had he been able to.
The US attorney for the western district of Pennsylvania Scott Brady said there was no indication yet why the gunman had selected that particular facility. It was also not clear which of the three congregations that were using the synagogue for services on Saturday was the intended target – if indeed any specific group was.
While officials said they were still investigating the specific motivations for the attack, charge sheets made public on Sunday alleged Mr Bower expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and told officers afterwards that Jews were committing genocide and he wanted them all to die.
Mr Williams, the medical examiner, said: “Lots of shots were fired. There were casings everywhere.”
The authorities said they found victims at three different locations in the building. Mr Bowers was found by police on the third floor.
Mayor Bill Peduto called it the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history”.
Asked if it was time for politicians in the US to finally do something to better regulate access to firearms, Mr Peduto said: “We’re dealing with irrational behaviour. There is no way that you can rationalise a person walking into a synagogue during services and taking the lives of 11 people.
“We shouldn’t be trying to find ways to minimise the dangers that occur from irrational behaviour. We should be working to eliminate irrational behaviour and the empowerment of people who would seek to cause this type of carnage from continuing.”
Mr Brady, the prosecutor, explained why the incident was being handled as a hate crime rather than domestic terrorism.
“The distinction between a hate crime and domestic terrorism is a hate crime is where an individual is animated by a hatred or certain animus towards a person of a certain ethnicity or religious faith,” he said.
“It becomes domestic terrorism where there’s an ideology that that person is then also trying to propagate through violence. We continue to see where that line is. But for now, at this place in our investigation, we’re treating it as a hate crime and charging it as such.”
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