The attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday morning left 11 people dead and six others injured. The shooter was the latest armed with an AR-15, as well as three handguns, all of which he legally owned.
Among the wounded were four police officers, or not quite as many as the seven law enforcement agents shot, two of them fatally, during an active shooting earlier this month in Florence, South Carolina — good men and women, extensively trained in firearms, who were quite literally outgunned by murderers.
Saturday’s news seemed infuriatingly routine because, statistically, it was. A database on mass shootings maintained by Mother Jones shows that fewer days have elapsed between such incidents in 2018, suggesting that they may be occurring ever more frequently.
Yet the horror in Squirrel Hill also brought several terrible superlatives. It was the deadliest attack against Jewish people in American history. It also feels uniquely unsettling. Mere days after a bomber targeted perceived political enemies with devices that didn’t go off, the Pittsburgh gunman used an assault-style rifle to efficiently carry out a rampage reportedly motivated by his general, evil anti-Semitism and his more specific panic over the migrant caravan that President Trump and his allies have exploited to stoke hysteria among his rightwing base during the lead-up to the midterms. To the stew of conspiracy theories that now seeps daily online, the Pittsburgh murderer added a Jewish refugee agency he blamed for smuggling in “invaders” who “kill our people.”
As Pittsburgh grieves and Jews across the country mourn an assault on a center of the Jewish faith in the United States, we are all forced to contemplate the entwined threats of a politics built for division, social media platforms that excel at detaching users from reality, and our nation’s bountiful supply of firearms.
The link between guns and hate crimes
Between 2010 and 2015, guns — or threats made with guns — were a factor in more than 46,000 hate crimes, according to an analysis of federal crime victims surveys by the liberal Center for American Progress. That works out to about 20 such attacks per day, and is in line with findings from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But those stark numbers could reflect significant undercounts, because reporting requirements are so lax. Last year, Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut proposed legislation that would foster better data on hate crimes, noting that FBI statistics are likely a dramatic undercount.
Under federal law, persons convicted of felony hate crimes are prohibited from gun ownership. Four states — California, Minnesota, Oregon and New Jersey — have laws that go beyond that standard and bar those convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes from possessing guns. In 2016, Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island introduced a bill that would have made that the national standard.
Across the country, hate crimes have spiked since 2015, an increase that civil rights groups have blamed on President Trump’s outwardly divisive rhetoric and dog whistles to white supremacists. The rise may also reflect an increase in the number of victims reporting incidents as public awareness grows.
Before this weekend, there have been several high-profile examples in which firearms were used in deadly hate crimes.
- In 2012, a known neo-Nazi opened fire at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six.
- In June 2015, a committed white supremacist armed with a Glock pistol murdered nine members of a historic African-American congregation in Charleston, South Carolina.
- In February 2017, a man in Olathe, Kansas, shot two South Asian patrons of a bar, killing one and wounding a third person who tried to intervene.
- Just last week, a white gunman in Kentucky killed two black shoppers at a supermarket, after first trying to enter a predominantly black Baptist church.
More frequently, the perpetrators of hate crimes use guns as tools of intimidation: A bullet was fired through a Jewish temple in Evansville, Indiana, last year — the day after a bill that would have stiffened penalties for hate crimes failed in the Statehouse.
Remembering the Victims
Saturday wasn’t the first time Squirrel Hill has been struck by a hate-motivated shooter: In 1986, an Orthodox rabbinical student was shot five times on his way home from evening prayers and died in the hospital.
The neighborhood is the hub of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. In the building where Tree of Life members were worshipping, two other congregations were also holding services, and within a mile radius stand at least seven other synagogues. It is a tight-knit community woven into the larger fabric of Pittsburgh’s civic life. So much so that the executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who lives blocks from Tree of Life, learned about the mass shooting via phone call from a local businessman who saw police cars racing by as he shopped at the bakery next door.
As word spread, Squirrel Hill learned that the victims included many fixtures of Tree of Life, whose names were released yesterday by authorities. Among those killed:
- Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, was a doctor who, along with his wife, poured his heart into their synagogue. A former HIV-positive patient of his shared an especially poignant Facebook remembrance: “He was known in the community for keeping us alive the longest. He often held our hands (without rubber gloves) and always always hugged us as we left his office… Thank you Dr. Rabinowitiz for having always been there during the most terrifying and frightening time of my life.”
- Rose Mallinger had lived to see 97. She came to the Saturday morning service every week with her daughter.
- Richard Gottfried, 65, owned a dental practice with his Catholic wife. Together, they volunteered for a free dental clinic and counseled engaged couples at a nearby church.
- Cecil and David Rosenthal, aged 59 and 54 respectively, lived in a nearby group home. The Rosenthal brothers, who were developmentally disabled, first attended services at the Tree of Life with their grandfather when they were young children. “Cecil’s laugh was infectious. David was so kind and had such a gentle spirit,” said an executive with a local social services agency. “Together, they looked out for one another,”
Judah Samet, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor and member of the Tree of Life, was minutes late to Saturday’s service, and looked on as the gunman exchange gunfire with the police. “I saw smoking coming out of his muzzle,” he told The Forward.
Samet, who was born in Hungary, turned 8 years old in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “It just never ends,” he said.