A shooter opened fire during a baby naming ceremony at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, and people with knowledge of the investigation said at least 11 people were killed. Six are injured.
At least six other people were wounded, including four police officers who dashed to the scene, authorities said.
Police said a suspect was in custody after the attack at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. A law enforcement official identified the suspect as Robert Bowers and said he is in his 40s. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Social media posts from Bowers suggest he planned this attack. According to his Gab account, Bowers posted this before the shooting: “can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Also, Bowers has an active agenda against HIAS, a U.S.-based non-profit providing humanitarian aid and assistance to Jewish refugees. Bowers posted on his Gab account, “HIAS likes to bring in invaders that kill our people.”
In a statement, Gab says they, “unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence. Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.”
Gab backed up Bowers’s account, suspended it, and turned the information to the FBI.
City officials said the shooting was being investigated as a federal hate crime. It comes amid a rash of high-profile attacks in an increasingly divided country, including the series of pipe bombs mailed over the past week to prominent Democrats and former officials.
The shooting also immediately reignited the longstanding national debate about guns: President Donald Trump said synagogues and churches should have armed guards, while Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor said that “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”
The people who provided the death toll spoke to The Associated Press anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the shooting.
“It is a very horrific crime scene. It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen and I’ve been on some plane crashes,” said a visibly moved Wendell Hissrich, the Pittsburgh public safety director.
The attack took place during a baby naming ceremony, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. It was unknown whether the baby was harmed.
The synagogue is located in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. Squirrel Hill is home to 26% of Pittsburgh-area Jewish households, according to a 2017 study conducted by Brandeis University.
President Donald Trump called the shooting “far more devastating than anyone thought,” saying “it’s a terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country.”
Trump also said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard and suggested that might be a good idea for all churches and synagogues.
Gov. Tom Wolf called the shooting an “absolute tragedy” in a statement that made reference to calls for tighter gun control laws.
Just three days before the shooting, Rabbi Jeffrey Myers posted a column on the congregation’s website, noting that people make time to attend funerals, but not for life’s happy occasions.
“There is a story told in the Talmud of a wedding procession and a funeral procession heading along parallel roads, with the roads intersecting,” Myers wrote on Wednesday. “The question asked is: when they meet at the fork, which procession goes first, funeral or wedding? The correct answer is the wedding, as the joy of the couple takes precedence. In fact, the funeral procession is to move out of sight so that their joy is not lessened.”
Myers ended his column with words that now seem all too prescient.
“We value joy so much in Judaism that upon taking our leave from a funeral or a shiva house, the customary statement one makes (in Yiddish) is ‘nor oyf simches’ – only for s’machot,” Myers wrote. “While death is inevitable and a part of life, we still take our leave with the best possible blessing, to meet at joyous events. And so I say to you: nor oyf simches!”
Portions of this report are by Eric Tucker, Michael Balsamo, Marc Levy, Claudia Lauer, and Allen C. Breed of the Associated Press.