What We Know About Saturday’s Anti-Semitic Massacre, and Law Enforcement’s Response

It’s troubling that the FBI quickly labeled the shooting a hate crime without investigating whether it was a terrorist attack

October 29, 2018

The FBI has identified Robert Bowers, 46, as the shooter in Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Brennan Center’s Michael German, a former FBI special agent and expert on right-wing violence, offers his take on what we know, what we don’t, and what comes next.

What are the facts so far?

Bowers brought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and three handguns into the synagogue, killing 11 and wounding six more, including four police officers. Federal officials indicated they are pursuing hate crimes charges.

Social media accounts reportedly belonging to Bowers reveal he recently posted neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant messages and communicated with like-minded people associated with white supremacist groups. An archived version of one of his accounts indicates he previously posted pictures of his guns, vaguely threatened a Jewish refugee agency, and in the hours before the attack, said he was “going in.” Yet the FBI was quick to say he acted alone, even though the investigation is still in an early stage.

Based on what we know now, how does this attack compare with similar attacks on minority groups in America?

It is, unfortunately, one of the deadlier attacks, though thanks to the rapid response of law enforcement, not the deadliest, which was last year’s shooting in Las Vegas by a far-right conspiracy theorist. Religious institutions have recently been targeted by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, including Dylann Roof’s 2015 attack on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, which killed nine worshipers; Wade Michael Page’s attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012, which killed six; and the 2017 bombing of a Minnesota mosque by three Illinois men. A gunman who last week killed two African American shoppers at a Kentucky supermarket first tried to enter an African American church, but the door was locked. 

Unfortunately, the federal government does not keep accurate records of attacks by far-right domestic terrorists, nor does it have statistics on racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, xenophobic, or Islamophobic hate crimes. The lack of accurate statistics makes it hard to fully account for this violence or identify trends. Private advocacy groups and academic institutions that attempt to collect this information have reported a rising number of attacks since Donald Trump began his presidential campaign with vulgar racist remarks against Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

Bowers’ social media accounts are filled with comments about the “caravan” of immigrants purportedly heading to the U.S. border, a meme that Donald Trump recently highlighted as a campaign issue and that right-wing media has hyped into a major story (even though the caravan is more than a thousand miles from the border). Bowers was particularly upset at a Jewish refugee services agency that he seemed to think was helping Muslim refugees come into the country.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote in one post, referring to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works with the federal government to resettle refugees in the U.S. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Unfortunately, President Trump has only encouraged an emboldening of violent far-right activists, calling white supremacists rioting in Charlottesville “fine people.” Law enforcement also dropped the ball by only lightly policing rallies in which violent far-right activists beat, stabbed, and shot counter protesters, making few arrests afterward. It was only after pressure from investigative journalists that law enforcement acted against a far-right group that wreaked havoc in Charlottesville. And here in New York City, police acted against the far-right Proud Boys group, who were involved in a recent street brawl, only after intense public pressure.

The passage of time before law enforcement took action is as problematic as Trump’s supportive rhetoric. This tacit sanctioning of far-right violence by authority figures is a glowing green light to the most dangerous elements within the white supremacist community, encouraging them to become more aggressive in recruiting and organizing for greater violence. 

Law enforcement said the FBI is treating this as a hate crime. What does that mean and how does it impact the investigation?

I’m troubled by how quickly the FBI concluded Bowers acted alone and classified the attack as a hate crime rather than an act of terrorism. The FBI had not yet obtained a search warrant for Bowers’ home when this announcement was made. The FBI’s civil rights program policy implementation guide says that when a hate crime occurs, agents should determine whether the suspect had any “nexus” to a white supremacist group. If so, the case should be opened as both a civil rights violation and a domestic terrorism case.

Bowers’ social media activity reflects an association with neo-Nazi groups, so according to FBI policies, it should have been opened as a domestic terrorism case as well, to determine if anyone materially supported Bowers’ attack, or conspired with him in planning it. The Justice Department similarly investigated and charged James Alex Fields’ fatal attack against counterprotesters in Charlottesville as a hate crime. While the penalties — in Fields’ case he is facing the death penalty — are severe, one has to wonder why the FBI treated the attack as if it didn’t happen in the middle of one of the largest and best-planned white supremacist riots in modern history.

It may very well be determined that no one assisted Bowers’ attack, and that would be good news. But rushing to judgement might lead us to miss important clues to the next attack. While conducting surveillance of social media accounts without any reason to suspect criminal activity is ineffective and chills First Amendment rights, examining the associates of people who have engaged in ideologically driven violence — including their social media associates — is just good police work.

This all comes just days after attempts to target political leaders with pipe bombs. What do these attacks say about the state of right-wing violence in America? 

Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested for mailing pipe bombs to prominent Democrats and other critics of Trump, appears to have a history of threatening violence before he became interested in right-wing conspiracy theories promoted by Trump and amplified by right-wing media. When people in authority call their political opponents enemies of the state and openly celebrate violence, we can’t be surprised when some of them oblige. But Trump’s appeal to white nationalists was a bit more complicated. 

Most white supremacists knew Trump wasn’t really one of them but supported him in an exercise of mutual exploitation. Trump benefited from the angry energy they brought to the base while his openly racist policies and rhetoric would give them an opportunity to promote their ideas to a mainstream audience. But he was never going to be able to give them everything they wanted, particularly regarding the American government’s close relationship with Israel. 

For Pittsburgh shooter Bowers, his social media account indicates he was fed up with Trump. One message he reposted suggested the recent arrests of several members of the Rise Above Movement for their violence in Charlottesville and the Proud Boys in New York City were a sign that a crackdown was imminent. The Trump administration’s denunciation of anti-Semitic violence, tepid as it may have sounded to many of us, will be seen by some white supremacists as a betrayal. Trump and his sycophants in Congress sowed the wind. Unfortunately, it is others who have to suffer the whirlwind.

It appears the suspect had posted pictures of firearms and posted derogatory remarks about refugees and Jewish people. What can we learn about suspects from their social media profiles, and what are the limitations?

It is a natural reaction to look at advancing technology as a contributor to political violence. Criminals tend to be early adopters of new technology as they seek ways to avoid government monitoring. But it also provides a bonanza of intelligence and evidence. Bowers’ social media posts have provided a window into his intentions and will supply strong evidence if he is prosecuted for hate crimes. Those messages will be strong evidence used to prosecute him. 

It is too much to expect law enforcement to prevent every angry person from carrying out such crimes. But for groups like the Rise Above Movement, whose members had prior felony convictions for violent crimes and weapons offenses and promoted their violence online in near-real time, arrests could have been brought much earlier. Effective, timely policing of these violent criminals would have sent the message that political violence at these rallies would not be tolerated. Instead, Trump celebrated it, drawing violent criminals to his movement and encouraging others to become more active.

I fear that shutting down the online outlets that allow these groups to vent their vileness will make tracking them more difficult and will give these groups one more reason to paint themselves as victims to justify further violence. Shoving this dreck under the carpet won’t make them go away. We have to just make sure law enforcement is paying attention and treating these violent criminals as the public threat they are.

(Image: Mike Swensen/Getty)