The Justice Department filed additional charges Tuesday against Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers, detailing a list of anti-Semitic statements he allegedly made in the run-up to the attack.
Authorities said Bowers, 46, of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, drove to Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 armed with handguns and a rifle, and proceeded to gun down as many people as he could once inside. He’s also charged with shooting police officers who tried to stop him.
The attack left 11 dead, ranging in age from 54 to 97. It was the deadliest attack on Jews in the United States.
The superseding 66-count indictment filed Tuesday reveals more details about how Bowers was allegedly motivated by hate. Before the attack, Bowers wrote a series of stridently anti-Semitic statements on social media, according to the indictment.
Bowers was particularly incensed, officials said, by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), a group that has long provided humanitarian assistance to refugees.
On Oct. 10, Bowers posted on a HIAS website listing Jewish congregations hosting refugee-related events, including the congregation in Pittsburgh, according to the indictment. Bowers allegedly wrote: “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
The posts had been previously reported, but the indictment now attributes those statements directly to Bowers, including a post he allegedly wrote just before attacking the synagogue: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The updated indictment adds 13 alleged violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, plus other charges.
The charges against Bowers carry a possible death sentence, but it is still unclear whether the Justice Department will seek the ultimate penalty against Bowers.
Immediately after the attack, local federal prosecutors indicated they would seek the death penalty, but that decision must ultimately be reviewed by senior officials at Justice Department headquarters in Washington and approved by the attorney general.
Local prosecutors have also expressed an interest in charging Bowers but have said they will let the federal case proceed first.
Before the attack, Bowers was a truck driver who went largely unnoticed by his neighbors. Online, though, he allegedly posted virulently anti-Semitic and racist rants.
The synagogue shooting renewed debate about whether the U.S. government is doing enough to curb violence motivated by race, religion or ethnic background – and whether new laws should be passed specifically categorizing attacks like the one in Pittsburgh as terrorism, rather than a hate crime.
The issue has divided current and former law enforcement officials, with some arguing federal law should brand as terrorists the people who commit such acts. Other current and former officials insist that hate crimes laws already carry a potential death sentence and reclassifying those crimes as terrorism would not change the consequences for such killers.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Devlin Barrett