Skip Navigation
Analysis

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 An archived version of one of his accounts indic­ates he previ­ously posted pictures of his guns, vaguely threatened a Jewish refugee agency, and in the hours before the attack,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)