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Pittsburgh synagogue shooting leaves 11 dead, many wounded

By Deanna Paul, Avi Selk and Amy B. Wang

A gunman killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday-morning services in what the Anti-Defamation League called "likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States."

Law enforcement officials said Robert Bowers - a 46-year-old man with a history of making anti-Semitic statements online - surrendered to police after a gun battle and is expected to face hate crime charges.

The hourlong incident left 11 dead at Tree of Life Congregation, according to Lynette Lederman, executive assistant to city council member Corey O'Connor. Lederman, who is also a former president of Tree of Life and a senior member of the Jewish community, said six others were shot - including four police officers.

"It's a very horrific crime scene," Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich told reporters in the afternoon, after Bowers had been apprehended. "One of the worst that I've seen. And I've been on some plane crashes."

The suspect interrupted a baby-naming service at about 10 a.m, Pennsylvania's attorney general told The Associated Press. Witnesses told police he burst in shouting anti-Semitic slurs and began firing.

Stephen Weiss recalled hearing gunshots and fleeing the building through the sanctuary. "We had services going on in the chapel when we heard a loud noise in the lobby area," he told the Tribune-Review.

KDKA reported that police confronted the suspect near the synagogue entrance. Witnesses said one officer was wounded in an initial firefight, and two more were shot when they tried to corner the gunman upstairs.

The man ranted about needing to kill Jews during a brief standoff, police dispatchers said on the radio.

He surrendered to police around 11 a.m., an hour or so after the shooting began.

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Dispatchers said he had a pistol on his ankle and another in his waistband and had been injured. KDKA reported that he came out crawling.

Gab, a social media platform that has attracted many far-right users, released a statement on Saturday, saying the company had suspended an account that "matched the name of the alleged shooter's name" and turned the messages over to the FBI.

An unverified image of the deleted account shows a stream of anti-Semitic messages leading up to the shooting.

"Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist," the user "Robert Bowers" posted after a rally this week in which President Donald Trump invoked both terms to declare himself a nationalist.

Trump has repeatedly slammed "globalists" in his public rhetoric, despite warnings that the term is understood to mean Jews in anti-Semitic circles. That's evidently what it means to the Gab user "Robert Bowers," whose messages suggest disillusionment with the president.

"There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k--- infestation," the user wrote, using a slur for Jews.

For weeks, "Robert Bowers" was enraged by the national Jewish group HIAS's efforts to hold Shabbat services for refugees, according to the archives messages.

"HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people," the user wrote hours before the shooting. "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

"It looks definitely like it's an anti-Semitic crime," Trump told reporters Saturday afternoon. "That is something you wouldn't believe could still be going on."

The Tree of Life synagogue is located in a leafy residential enclave near Carnegie Mellon University - one of the larger predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the United States. Its "traditional, progressive and egalitarian" congregation, formed in 1864, is Pittsburgh's oldest Jewish congregation.

It's the "center of Jewish life on Shabbat morning," said Rabbi Aaron Bisno of the Rodef Shalom Congregation, two blocks away.

It is unclear how many were in the synagogue at the time of the shooting. According to an online calendar, there would have been a Shabbat service scheduled for 9:45 a.m. Saturday.

The synagogue's main sanctuary, a cavernous space with soaring stained-glass windows that depict the story of creation, can hold up to 1,250 guests, according to the Tree of Life's website.

"This is an absolute tragedy," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf wrote on Twitter. "These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Americans."

Police in Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all said they were increasing patrols at synagogues and other houses of worship following the Pittsburgh attack as precautionary measures.

Speaking to reporters at Joint Base Andrews on Saturday, Trump said the shooting was "far more devastating than anybody originally thought" but did not offer details.

"It's a terrible, terrible thing, what's going on with hate in our country, frankly, and all over the world, and something has to be done," he said.

When asked if he should revisit gun laws, Trump said: "This has little to do with it, if you take a look. If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better."

Trump has frequently suggested that more armed people could deter mass shootings, making the comment after shooting rampages in Parkland, Florida, and Orlando in recent years. Armed law enforcement officers were present at both of those mass shootings and others that have still occurred.

It's unclear whether the synagogue had security measures in place. In a July blog post for the synagogue titled "We Deserve Better," Rabbi Jeffrey Myers criticized elected leaders for their lack of action in enacting gun-control legislation in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.

"Unless there is a dramatic turnaround in the mid-term elections, I fear that that the status quo will remain unchanged, and school shootings will resume," Myers wrote. "I shouldn't have to include in my daily morning prayers that God should watch over my wife and daughter, both teachers, and keep them safe. Where are our leaders?"

The shooting comes during an sharp spike in anti-Semitic activities in the U.S., according to an Anti-Defamation League report released earlier this year. From 2016 to 2017, instances of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism and assault increased 57 percent, the largest single-year jump since ADL began tracking the data in the 1970s.

"This is close to an all-time high," Greenblatt told The Post then. "We're living in a time where extremists feel emboldened and they're increasingly taking action. They feel empowered; they almost feel like they've been mainstreamed."

Ben Opie, 55, who lives across the street from Tree of Life, said his wife was leaving for a volunteer duty at about 11 a.m. when police shouted at her to get back inside the house. Officers banged on neighbors' doors and told them to stay locked inside.

Two hours later, after many of the police vehicles had left the neighborhood, Opie said he's still shaking.

"It's just," Opie said, pausing, his voice trembling. "Sorry, it's shaking me more than usual."

By Saturday afternoon, members of the synagogue were gathering at a grief center waiting to hear about friends and family members caught in the shooting.

"It's one of my biggest fears," said Chuck Diamond, who worked as a rabbi at Tree of Life for seven years. "When I was leading the congregation, I always had in the back of my mind that something like this will happen. It's a terrible thing to feel."

The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach, Devlin Barrett, Mark Berman, Kristine Phillips, Mike Rosenwald and Katie Zezima contributed to this report.

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