Robert Bowers, the suspect gunman of the devastating Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, was on trial today for the murder of 11 congregants.
Handcuffed and surrounded by marshals, Bowers entered the federal court in downtown Pittsburgh in a wheelchair. Magistrate Judge Robert read a list of 29 criminal charges against him including the obstruction of the free exercise of religious beliefs, or hate crime, which itself could justify a death penalty.
When asked if he understood the charges, Bowers replied “yes.”
Prosecutors successfully argued that “no condition or combination of conditions will reasonably assure” that Bowers would voluntarily come to future hearings. As a result, he is to remain in custody before his next court appearance on Thursday.
Who is the suspect?
On Saturday morning, in the quiet residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, a baby naming ceremony was taking place at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue when a man in his 40s suddenly stormed into the building. Yelling “all Jews must die,” he opened fire at the crowd and killed 11 worshippers.
The alleged murderer is Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old white nationalist living in a secluded brick apartment just 25 minutes away from the synagogue. His neighbor disclosed that they never had a conversation during the two years she lived there. He actually seldom interacted with anyone.
Though with no previous criminal record, Bowers has been disseminating anti-Semitic hate speech online for years. Instead of mainstream social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, Bowers chose Gab—a platform with almost no hate speech regulation—and has been sharing racist messages there since he opened his account in January.
Gab has become a haven for alt-right activists like Bowers himself congregate online and instigate violence.
Keeping a low profile in real life, Bowers was much more open about his anti-Jewish conspiracy theories when typing anonymously online. His Gab biography was an inflammatory statement: “Jews are the children of Satan.”
“Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” Read one of his posts.
He was also outraged that President Trump was not radical enough to embrace the hateful neo-Nazi ideology. “Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist,” he wrote. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a infestation”—by which he meant the Jewish population.
Since the shooting, the website removed Bowers’ account and issued a statement condemning violence of all sorts. “Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence,” it said.
But irreversible damage was done. In fact, Bowers posted one last message on Gab right before he went on the shooting rampage: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The rest is history.
List of victims released
Victims of this deadly shooting rampage include Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69.
Among those killed were the devoted Rosenthal brothers, Cecil and David. According to community members, their developmental disability never stopped them from sharing joy and laughter with every single person in the neighborhood.
“Cecil’s laugh was infectious,” said Chris Schopf, Achieva’s vice president of residential supports. “David was so kind and had such a gentle spirit. Together, they looked out for one another. They were inseparable. Most of all, they were kind, good people with a strong faith and respect for everyone around.”
J.E. Reich is a reporter who also grew up in the affluent Squirrel Hill neighborhood. He recalled how Cecil would always arrive at the synagogue earlier than meeting times and greet other congregants as they came to the door. “Not out of obligation, but out of joy,” he added.
As of now, all burials are delayed due to the ongoing investigation.
Featured image via Michael Henninger/The New York Times