The Making of the Pittsburgh Shooter

Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, where Jews were murdered by a man shouting “All Jews must die”

Robert Bowers – who allegedly shot dead 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Oct. 27 – has the look of a lonely crackpot. But I think that, on the contrary, he is a vanguard representative of the largest and most protean mass movement of modern history, which is the movement to exterminate the Jews. 

The movement got started in a primitive version in 1881 in Russia with a wave of pogroms in the name of Christianity and under the auspices of the Czar – which led, in New York City, to the organising of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS, to receive the refugees who came streaming into New York harbour. And Bowers saw in HIAS today, and its support for refugees around the world, his motivation to murder the Jews of Pittsburgh. 

Do his rage against HIAS and his commitment to murdering the Jews make him lonely and isolated? No, he is a brother of the Russian village bigots of the 1880s. He and they are united in the deepest of modern antisemitic convictions, which is the belief that foreign elements have penetrated society and are rendering it unhealthy, and the elements must be destroyed, and murder is virtue.

The pogroms of the 1880s, terrible as they were, eventually swelled into something larger still, which, in the first years after the overthrow of the Czar, produced the murder of perhaps as many as 150,000 Ukrainian Jews – an event that is oddly forgotten today, if only because the Ukrainian pogromists, the “Whites” in Russia’s civil war, went on to serve the Nazis 20 years later, and the Nazis outdid the Whites and overshadowed them. 

Synagogue shooter Robert Bowers

And Bowers is a brother of these people, too, Ukrainian Whites and German Nazis alike. The Nazis believed that Germany was in danger of annihilation from a Jewish attack, and they wanted to annihilate the Jews out of a pathologically warped spirit of self-defence – and Bowers, with his remarks about “genocide,” subscribes to the same pathology, except in an American version. 

And he is a brother of the Islamist jihad. Even before the Nazis went down to defeat, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its allies in other Arab countries, the Islamists, adopted the Nazi idea and adapted it, such that ideas from Mein Kampf re-emerged in a Quranic language from the 7th century. The Islamists added a specialty of their own, as well, which is the one-man, sad-sack, suicide mission. And this, idea, too, became Bowers’.

He has the look of an idiot. Doubtless he is, in fact, an idiot. But be careful: The movement to exterminate the Jews has always been a matter of low and high alike, the illiterates and the professors. The ignorant peasants subscribed to the modern antisemitic mythology, and so did the single most influential of the 20th-century philosophers, Martin Heidegger, who was a Nazi from start to finish and a firm believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, cited in his notebooks as a scholarly source – Heidegger, the ultimate father of the postmodernist wave in the universities.

Nor is the Islamist movement lacking in distinguished theoreticians. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the “mufti of martyrdom operations” (in his own mocking phrase) and grand theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood, is more than a popular Islamic televangelist – the most popular in the world, actually. He is taken to be a sophisticated interpreter of the sacred texts. And yet, the sophisticated interpreter is, at the same time, outspoken in his respect for Hitler and for Hitler’s goal.

Bowers has the look, then again, of a right-wing extremist, and this, too, is surely the case – though everyone has noticed by now that apologies for extermination are a left-wing phenomenon, as well. The Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in Gaza, which is Hamas, openly proclaims its goals – and, even so, a video has lately turned up of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn praising Hamas for what he calls its “democratic” aspirations. There is the curious case of Judith Butler, the Berkeley philosopher, who chooses to regard Hamas as a progressive movement – part of the “global left”. There are the college students in one place or another, there are the Democratic Socialists of America, no less, my own erstwhile comrades, some of whom, the BDS zealots, have famously and disgracefully chanted, “From the river to the sea/Palestine will be free!” – which, as everyone but 10-year-olds understand, is a call for massacre. 

There is the case of American Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, left-wing and right-wing at the same time, who has lately made a pun about Semites and termites, with the joke resting on the unspoken call for an exterminator. Farrakhan’s respectability is deemed, even so, to be sufficiently well established that Bill Clinton, no less, found it unavoidable a few weeks ago to share a stage with him at Aretha Franklin’s funeral: a breakthrough moment in Farrakhan’s political career.

But the extreme right is, of course, the home of homes. And who will say that, in those precincts, Bowers is so terribly lonely? And is the extreme right really so isolated? US President Donald Trump outdoes himself from one day to the next, and he outdid himself on the very day of the massacre by criticising the synagogue in his initial statement – the victims, for having failed to arm themselves. And he proceeded to conduct his miserable campaign rally in Murphysboro, Illinois, where, a few hours after the massacre, his wretched followers joyously chanted “Lock her up!” in testimony to their fervent and nihilist desire to reduce America to the sort of country that does lock up its opposition: an extremist chant by definition. 

But it is not a matter of parsing Trump’s statements and the dreadful chants. It is a matter of sizing up his larger political coalition, visible at Murphysboro, where, like Farrakhan, the outright bigots have been accorded their honoured place. And never is Trump going to betray the people who have always been the base of his base. 

Bowers, then, the murderer – who is he? He is a fleck on a larger wave, vast and modern, that traverses the oceans, the continents, the religions, and even the petty distinctions of left and right. We attribute loneliness and isolation to the man because we want to be reassured. But Bowers does not believe himself to be isolated, and he has no reason to do so. He believes himself to be on the popular side. He looks about him, and he feels buoyed by the tide, which may be Christian or Muslim, or may be a tide from Old Russia, or from the Aryan nationalists of Europe, or from the Islamists and their utopian ummah, or from the American “white race” and its most extreme proponents. This Hitlerian tide, broad enough to contain an occasional muddle-headed leftist and more than a few professors, a tide of wrath and paranoia and sewage, foams into the desire to massacre the Jews and lifts him up and carries him forward to the imagined sea of blood that will occupy his fantasies and delight him for however long he lives.

Paul Berman is critic-at-large at Tablet Magazine. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals. This article is reprinted from Tablet Magazine, at tabletmag.com, the online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. © Tablet Magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.