Trump offers call for unity after shooting, pivots to rally mode

US President Donald Trump. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: Donald Trump condemned “all forms of evil,” including anti-Semitism, after a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh left 11 people dead in what’s being investigated as a hate crime.

“We mourn for the unthinkable loss of life that took place today,” the president told a gathering of young farmers in Indianapolis, pledging the full resources of his administration to investigate the crime. “Our nation and the world are shocked.”

Trump pressed ahead with a campaign rally in southern Illinois Saturday night, where his roughly 70-minute remarks were more sotto voce than usual. He veered little from his usual script, though, of attacking Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Representative Maxine Waters of California.

“If you don’t mind, I’m going to tone it down a little bit, do you mind?” Trump asked the crowd assembled at an airport hangar at Southern Illinois Airport. It’s time, said Trump, to “renew the bonds of love and loyalty that sustain us as Americans.”

Barnstorming in an effort to hold on to Republican majorities in Congress in the Nov 6 midterms, the president has eight or more rallies planned, from Florida to Montana, over the next week. He said Saturday he would also go to Pittsburgh in the wake of the shooting.

Earlier, before boarding Air Force One, Trump said the Pittsburgh incident may have ended differently had there been armed personnel inside the synagogue. The comment could reopen a bitter debate over gun-control laws and the political influence of the National Rifle Association, less than two weeks from midterm elections.

“If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple maybe it could have been a very much different situation,” Trump said, adding that the US should “stiffen up” its death penalty laws. Earlier, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other charges against the defendant, including ones that could lead to the death penalty.

History of Shootings

“We believe this is the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States,” the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, said in a statement.

Trump joined his daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism upon her marriage, and Vice President Mike Pence in condemning anti-Semitism. He told reporters on Air Force One that he’d spoken to the mayor of Pittsburgh, to Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania’s governor, and to his daughter and her husband Jared Kushner about the shooting.

Places of worship, from churches to a Sikh temple, have been common sites of fatal shootings in the US. That includes the 2017 shooting at First Baptist Sutherland Springs in Texas that left 26 dead, and the murder of nine parishioners, all black, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Colombia, South Carolina, in 2015.

Meanwhile, a movement to arm teachers took root earlier this year after the massacre of 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“It hurts every time I see these headlines and then the political inaction,” David Hogg, a Stoneman student who’s become a gun-control advocate, said on Twitter. “Squirrel Hill my heart is with you. We will fight for you every single day.”

The president is receiving regular updates on the shooting and its aftermath from Mike Burnett, senior director for counter-terrorism, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.

A suspect, Robert Bowers, 46, surrendered and was in custody. Bowers entered the synagogue armed with a high-powered rifle and at least three handguns, Bob Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Pittsburgh field office, said at a press briefing.

‘I’m Going In’

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal advocacy group, produced a Twitter message from an account with the name Robert Bowers blaming HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit agency that helps resettle refugees, for bringing “invaders in that kill our people,” adding, “Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Officials haven’t yet said whether or not there was armed security at the Tree of Life Congregation, located in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood about 10 miles (16 kilometres) from downtown. Many Jewish houses of worship and community centers in the US have boosted security in recent years in response to attacks or threats.

Jones, who’s been with the Bureau since 1996, termed the crime scene the worst he’d seen. The FBI will be taking the lead as the investigation continues.

US and foreign leaders decried the shooting. Israeli Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video message that he “was heartbroken and appalled.” Officials from Netanyahu’s administration are headed to Pittsburgh.

Former President Barack Obama, who spent eight years as griever-in-chief through a string of grisly mass shootings, said on Twitter that the US needs to both fight the rise of anti-Semitism and consider new actions on guns.

“There is no place in our society for violence against innocent people, especially violence motivated by race, religion, or sex,” Norm Coleman, a former US senator from Minnesota who chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in a statement. “The level of hate in this country is out of control.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center called on Trump to show leadership in fighting extremism in the US.

“We urge President Trump to immediately convene an emergency meeting of religious leaders to help stop the slide to extremism in American Society,” Rabbi Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, dean and associate dean, said in a statement released Saturday night in Vienna.

With US elections looming on Nov 6, Saturday’s incident comes a day after a Florida man was arrested and charged in connection with mailing at least 13 suspected explosive devices that targeted high-profile Democrats including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Jewish billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, and the cable network CNN.