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Antisemitic Mass Shooting Suspect Faces Death Penalty in Trial

Jury selection starts Monday in the trial of white supremacist Gab user Robert Bowers, who allegedly gunned down and killed 11 Jewish worshippers in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Department of Justice charged Bowers with 63 felony counts associated with that attack on the synagogue on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death. Bowers, 51, faces a potential death sentence if found guilty.

Bowers allegedly entered the synagogue wielding a Colt AR-15 rifle and three Glock .357 semi-automatic pistols. Authorities say he used all of them that morning, killing victims whose ages ranged from 54 to 97 and wounding six others in the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. Bowers allegedly yelled the words “all Jews must die” during the attack. He allegedly started the roughly 20-minute rampage around 9:45 that morning, focusing his hatred and violence on people who had gathered peacefully to read from the Torah.

Tree of Life memorial
A man prays at a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue following the mass shooting at the synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Oct. 31, 2018. (Photo by Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Apparent great replacement motive

Bowers became fixated on Tree of Life’s connection to the non-profit Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which provides aid to refugees. He believed in the so-called “great replacement” conspiracy theory, which falsely posits that elites – or sometimes, as Bowers believed, explicitly Jewish people – conspire to bring non-white people into Western countries as a way of breeding white people out of existence.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers posted to Gab on the morning of the attack.

Bowers’ alleged terrorism is one of several similar acts carried out in recent years allegedly motivated by the great replacement. The man who killed two dozen people in El Paso, Texas, in August 2019 told police he wanted to “kill Mexicans.” An anti-Black racist who murdered 10 people in Buffalo, New York, in May 2022 also endorsed the conspiracy theory. Bowers’ alleged crimes preceded both of these high-profile cases.

At the time Bowers allegedly attacked the synagogue, former president Donald Trump, Fox News, and far-right influencers pushed hyperbolic, conspiratorial stories about “caravans” of people attempting to access the U.S. unlawfully. These caravan stories coincided with a nativist political campaign from Republicans focused around the 2018 midterm elections.

Radical-right figures across fringe social media sites and apps promote propaganda about the conspiracy theory every day. More mainstream figures, including Donald Trump, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene have also given voice to aspects of the theory in recent years.

Spotlight returns to a notorious website

Robert Bowers
Robert Bowers (Photo from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP Images)

Bowers operated a verified handle on the fringe social media site Gab, meaning that he likely paid to get it. Since its founding in 2016, Gab has become infamous for its tolerance of a hateful, radical-right clientele, which includes virulent antisemites.

Gab’s founder and CEO, Andrew Torba, has attempted to distance himself from Bowers by portraying himself as a free-speech icon. Torba lives in rural Pennsylvania and traffics in antisemitism on social media, often justifying it as being in line with his interpretation of Christian values. He has also interacted with radical-right figures directly on his site.

“We are building a parallel Christian society because we are fed up and done with the Judeo-Bolshevik one,” a Twitter account associated with Gab posted in October 2021.

When Bowers operated an account on Gab, he used the handle @onedingo to network with such extremists as Daniel McMahon, who used the alias “Jack Corbin” on that site, and the neo-Confederate Brad Griffin. Those three men showed a marked interest in identifying and exposing left-wing activists during the runup to Bowers’ attack.

McMahon told this Hatewatch reporter in 2019 that, prior to the attack, Bowers helped him create high-resolution stills from videos of left-wing activists as a way to identify them. McMahon claimed then that his conversations with Bowers, which allegedly took place on Gab, did not stray far beyond that topic. Bowers also chatted with Jared Wyand, an antisemitic Trump supporter who once had a prominent account on Gab but has since kept a lower profile.

In the immediate aftermath of Bowers’ alleged crimes, as word spread to media outlets, Gab pulled his @onedingo account down from the site. Gab has faced turbulence in the years that followed the attack, cycling through different payment processors, domain registrars and other would-be collaborators.

Gab withdrew its bid to become a publicly traded company in March 2019, after Hatewatch reported on the likelihood that Torba inflated estimates of the number of users of the site, making it appear bigger than it actually is.

Bowers’ trial will be held at the Joseph F. Weis Jr. U.S. Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.

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