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The reporter on TV has just detailed his “chilling” encounter with the killer in a Pittsburgh courtroom. I was present in the courtroom as well, and I have no idea what the hell he is talking about.
It was the initial court appearance of Robert D. Bowers, the individual who killed 11 and wounded several others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27, 2018. Bowers, who received 29 federal and 36 state charges, was pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair. With his gray sweatpants, blue sweatshirt, dollar store black plastic slippers and thinning hair, he could be any problem drinker at a local Pittsburgh bar; except that his arms and legs were shackled to his wheelchair. He looked around the courtroom as he entered, but nothing appeared to register for him. It’s not that he wasn’t alert—just that he was possibly a bit of a “dull blade,” if you know what I mean; certainly, he was in over his head. When asked if he would waive his right to bail, he said, simply, “yes.” When asked if he needed a public defender, he said, “yes.” That was about the extent of the hearing, although to hear David Begnaud of CBSN relay the hearing to his TV audience, the killer’s appearance was “chilling,” something out of a horror film or an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Perhaps Begnaud wanted to perceive evil in the presence of Bowers, because at least that would go some way towards explaining how such a tragedy might have happened. The reality of the situation is that Bowers didn’t live in a white nationalist compound somewhere in remote Idaho wilderness—he lived in a crappy apartment in the same building as a plumbing and heating company, in a neighborhood lined with modest single-story brick houses. Sitting on the pavement outside his apartment door was a rusted out barbecue smoker with an upturned Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup on the top; an empty bottle of Bud Light was on the ground between the smoker and the front door. The building was near an old coal patch where, according to a neighbor named Terrance Holleran, “there’s been a couple homicides” in the last few years. He didn’t know Bowers; none of his neighbors seemed to. In Holleran’s words, it “is just unfortunate that this asshole chose to live here.”
The more we learn about Bowers, the less remarkable he becomes. He was a long-haul truck driver, friendly enough to the neighbors but generally kept to himself. It was only online where he felt free to unleash his inner raving lunatic. Before the attack, he posted the following on his social media account (he was a verified user of Gab, the Twitter of the extreme right): “[Refugee aid nonprofit] 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.”
“Screw your optics” refers to a lover’s quarrel among the far-right over “optics,” or whether they should worry about how crazy they appear to people outside the movement. And the invasion he referred to is the current, Donald Trump-fueled hysteria about an alleged, imminent invasion of brown people on our southern border.
Until the shooting, Bowers had “moved through the Pittsburgh area . . . leaving relatively little impression,” reports the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. But violence had been lying just under the surface for quite some time.
“Much of Bowers’ online profile resembles those of countless other extremist users,” according to a Southern Poverty Law Center analysis of the shooter’s social media. “As with other alt-right killers, it’s likely that Bowers was radicalized entirely online.” His social media activity revolved around several common obsessions of the racist right. He feared “white genocide,” an antisemitic conspiracy theory which holds that everything from immigration and multiculturalism to low birth rates and abortion are being promoted by the “globalists” (that’s an antisemitic code word for “Jews”) to drive the white race to extinction. In Bowers’ virtual reality, the white men have no power—undoubtedly resonant to a white man who seemed to have little in his own life worth living for—while George Soros is personally overseeing the extinction of the white race.
“Lone wolf terror” (sometimes called “leaderless resistance”) describes terrorist attacks conducted by a single person, or perhaps a very small, unaffiliated group. As terrorism expert George Michael writes in his book Lone Wolf Terror and the Rise of Leaderless Resistance, it is commonly understood among right-wing populists that “they are part of a relatively small and marginalized movement,” and that to take up arms “would almost certainly lead to organizational suicide,” not to mention actual suicide. This has led to the strategy, favored by the more conservative members of the right-wing populist movement, to concentrate on winning the masses over through propaganda.
The more extreme elements of right-wing populism, not willing to abandon armed struggle, have encouraged “lone wolves” to pick up arms. The idea is that individuals like Bowers and MAGA mail bomber Cesar Sayoc are the vanguard of a new movement that’s paving the way for a right-wing takeover of the United States. Now, this might be the case—but probably not in the way that the extremists like to imagine.
“Under specific conditions,” writes journalist and activist Chip Berlet, “virulent demonization and scapegoating can—and does—create milieus in which the potential for violence is increased.” While you can’t predict which individual will turn to violence, it can pretty much guarantee that someone will, “upon hearing the rhetoric of clear or coded incitement,” strike out at the perceived enemy.
Right-wing populism is a continuum. The extreme right (which Berlet also refers to as “the ultra-right”) is the revolutionary arm of right-wing populism in America. This includes the Klan, neo-Nazis, Aryan Nations, and anyone willing to pick up a gun or a baseball bat or make a pipe bomb for the struggle. Among the more conservative elements of right-wing populism are “reformist political movements.” These include the Republican Party, FOX News, and conservative think tanks. In between these two poles—the revolutionaries and the reformers—are the dissidents. This includes patriot and militia groups, right-wing talk radio, tea partiers, and anti-semitic conspiracy theorists. There is a lot of movement along this continuum: people might be drawn into right-wing talk radio, for instance, which becomes a conduit to a more extreme right-wing ideology.
Quite possibly, this is what happened to Robert Bowers. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bowers is believed to have once been an audio archivist for local right-wing talk show host—and Rush Limbaugh protege—Jim Quinn.
Where does the current president factor into all this? Most of us are quick to assume that Bowers’ fit of violence must be somehow connected to Trump—even if Bowers considered Trump to be a part of the problem, a “globalist,” and therefore at least partially responsible for the “kike invasion.”
In a recent talk, Berlet described [PDF] how right-wing populist groups are effective tools of political elites; as a result, they often receive encouragement (and funding) from those in power. The elites aren’t trying to reform the system, of course; they’re using the populist desire for reform to get one up on their political rivals.
“Cynical politicians emerge using populist-sounding rhetoric to mobilize the angry social movement into a political constituency,” according to Berlet. In the end, the winner is “a selected group within the society who are seeking to defend . . . unfair power and privilege.”
Ultimately, right-wing populism is a tool that is used by cynical elites for their own political advantage. However, right-wing rage is not something that can be controlled. Once unleashed, it will go wherever it goes; Trumpian hate speech one day becomes antisemitic violence the next.
On Tuesday, three days after the massacre, the funerals began. David and Cecil Rosenthal (ages 54 and 59 respectively) were Bowers’ youngest victims. The brothers were roommates at a residential facility for adults with developmental disabilities and never missed a Saturday at Tree of Life. I have never met David, but Cecil was my buddy—for the better part of a year, we would wait at the same bus stop each morning. He would always say hello, and once he even told me that I had “pretty hair.” (That was the first time I suspected that he was maybe an adult with developmental disabilities.)
The service was held at the Rodef Shalom Congregation. The brothers’ caskets, closed, were arranged front and center. By the time their brother-in-law, Michael Hirt, told us an anecdote about the brothers’ yearly trip to the flea market (Cecil would always buy a new calendar and a watch, while David invariably picked out a bottle of cologne and mirrored CHiPs-style sunglasses) everybody in the room was on the verge of tears.
I wrote the following in my notebook: “Jesus Christ, this is heartbreaking.”
The mourning ritual focused on the victims. Bowers’ name didn’t come up once, and aside from an argument over gun control between two old ladies sitting next to me in the balcony, neither did politics. Despite the presence of the mayor and several Pittsburgh Steelers, the focus stayed solely on the victims, just as it should have.
On this same day, the president was scheduled to visit the crime scene. It has been reported that he had displayed rare flashes of humanity in the period following the attacks, but for the most part, these were overshadowed by all-too-familiar Trumpisms.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said that he received a call from the president on the morning of the shooting. The president offered his condolences, then quickly started talking about the death penalty. “I’m literally standing two blocks from 11 bodies,” Peduto told The Washington Post. The death penalty would do nothing for the survivors, and it wouldn’t bring back the dead—this was simply cynical partisanship coming at the most inappropriate time.
“I ended the conversation pretty quickly after that,” the mayor said.
Not long after that phone call, Trump was in the news, talking up the death penalty and the need for armed guards in synagogues—a “Second Amendment solution” to right-wing violence that placed the blame on the Jews who dared practice their religion unarmed.
Hours after David and Cecil’s funeral, I was standing at the police checkpoint near the Tree of Life. On my side of the street, there were an estimated 2,000-plus protesters with signs that said things like “Denounce White Nationalism” and “Nazi Trump Fuck Off!” Two blocks away, the president and his wife placed rocks on a memorial dedicated to the eleven victims, the White House’s idea of an appropriately understated, religiously neutral ritual. In between us and them, a small group of riot cops stood on alert. They were lined up behind a dump truck that had been positioned to block the street, should the protestors get any ideas. The White House had invited a number of politicians to join them on the trip, “including the Senate and House Republican majority leaders, their Democratic counterparts [and] Mayor Bill Peduto.” All of those invited, sensing a political minefield, wisely declined.
The slow, solemn march of the protest through Squirrel Hill was a ritual itself—a civic ritual performed by and for a population who were angry and frightened. The truth, which perhaps they’d been able to avoid considering thus far in this season of bloodshed, could no longer be ignored: our Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief thinks nothing of using violent rhetoric and outright lies to gain and to keep power. And this violent rhetoric inevitably leads to physical violence. This is all straight from the despot’s playbook.
Robert Bowers, sad and violent and isolated, his worst impulses encouraged by forces he couldn’t quite understand, marks the end result of a particularly vile process. He may be locked up, awaiting trial, but his accomplices are many and they’re unlikely to pay for their crimes anytime soon.