This is an excerpt from my book Satan Goes to the Mind Control Convention: Manchurian Candidates, Recovered Memories, and the Dark Side of Conspiracy Culture. When I put it together three years ago, the wounds of the Tree of Life shooting were still fresh. For many of us they are still fresh. I hope for our sake we never get numb to the violence.
An abridged version of this story appeared in CounterPunch on November 16, 2018.
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 G. 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).*
My read of the situation is corroborated by Ari Mahler, the Jewish nurse who treated Bowers two days earlier. “I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bowers’ eyes,” he wrote on Facebook. “All I saw was a clear lack of depth, intelligence, and palpable amounts of confusion.” (He later amended this to say: “I didn't see evil when I looked into Robert Bower's eyes. I saw something else. I can’t go into details [sic] of our interactions because of HIPAA.”
But what do I know? Unlike the credentialed journalists, I had to hand my smartphone over to security before entering the court. I’m a second-class media citizen and certainly not a trusted name in TV news. Maybe the guy from New York (is he from New York? aren’t they all from New York?) is right, and the courtroom scene actually was as dramatic as he conveyed on television. I mean, I’m not comfortable saying that Bernaud is full of shit. Just that, you know, there are a few ways to look at this.
Perhaps he 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. Because 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): “HIAS [the refugee aid nonprofit] 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.
Bowers didn’t care whether or not he appeared crazy. And he was unquestionably deranged: he entered a house of worship and when he came face-to-face with some of the sweetest, most harmless looking senior citizens you could imagine, he pulled the trigger. He considered murdering them the same way that most of us consider setting a mouse trap; that is, he doesn’t seem to have given it any thought at all. Of course, that’s the most troubling part of all this. What sort of ugly mechanism was at work here?
Bowers’ actions were certainly evil, so perhaps it is understandable that we’d want him to act evil or seem evil in court. I looked, but I just didn’t see it. The Robert Bowers who committed what is said to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history was much different than the guy the U.S. Marshals wheeled out in front of me.
According to the criminal complaint:
During the course of his deadly assault on people at the Synagogue, and simultaneously with his gunfight with responding officers, BOWERS made statements evincing an animus towards people of the Jewish faith. For example, BOWERS commented to one law enforcement officer, in substance, "they're committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews." BOWERS repeated comments regarding genocide, his desire to kill Jewish people, and that Jewish people needed to die.
Until the shooting, Bowers had “moved through the Pittsburgh area … leaving relatively little impression,” according to 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 anti-Semitic 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 anti-Semitic code word for “Jews”) to drive the white race to extinction. In Bowers’ virtual reality, 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 (another anti-Semitic code word for “Jews”) 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. According to terrorism expert George Michael, the author of 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, you 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. Bowers is believed to have once been the webmaster or audio archivist (or both) for local right-wing talk show host — and Rush Limbaugh protege — Jim Quinn. (To give you an idea of the kind of right-wing kook Jim Quinn is, his show is available via live stream from the warroom.com website. His current billboards, as seen around the city, feature his geriatric mug lighting a cigar with a lighter shaped like an assault rifle.)
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 how hate groups are often tools of the wealthy; as a result, right-wing populist groups 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.
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 anti-Semitic violence the next.
Shortly after the Tree of Life shooting, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich walked over to the corner of Murray Avenue and Northumberland Street where the press was awaiting their statement. I don’t know how it came across on television, but the governor, having just seen the the bloody aftermath of the massacre, was visibly shaken, speaking so softly that he could hardly be heard a few feet away. And Hissrich, a 25-year veteran of the FBI, was visibly upset. Indeed, it seemed as if he might start weeping at any moment. As the press conference commenced, numerous first responders filed past — many of which, aside from patches that said POLICE or CIRT, were nearly indistinguishable from soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.
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Very few conspiracy theorists (self-identified or otherwise) are violent antisemites, although virtually all antisemites are conspiracy theorists. And conspiracy theory is one of the more effective tools in the despot’s toolbox. “Whether it’s in Hitler’s Germany, Assad’s Syria, or contemporary Turkey,” writes Oxford Sociology fellow Turkay Salim Nefes, “the official use of conspiracy rhetoric is a powerful political tool.” We should probably add the contemporary United States to the list. In all the examples listed above, conspiracy theories have been “used entirely rationally to justify political views” that otherwise wouldn’t even be considered by rational people. The Tree of Life killer believed that he was striking out at those who are behind the invasion of America. That America is being invaded is precisely what the Trump administration wants us to believe — why else is the president mobilizing up to 15,000 troops to the southern border? The nonexistent refugee “invasion” is simply another crackpot conspiracy theory that’s being championed by the Republican party and right-wing media outlets.
Before there even was an “official narrative” of the Tree of Life shooting, members of the online conspiracy community were poking holes in it. On The Memory Hole Blog, the website of former Florida Atlantic University professor (and Boston Marathon Bombing Truther) James Tracy, an analysis was posted which concluded that the massacre was a hoax, that the alleged victims are what is known as “crisis actors.” Chief among the items supporting this theory was the fact that, in the analyst’s opinion, the bystanders they saw on TV didn’t seem to be upset enough. (In fact, the shooting victims were sequestered until they could be interviewed by police, so the bystanders that they saw were mostly reporters and a few curious neighbors.) One cited example of inappropriate levity was a joke that Chuck Diamond, former Rabbi of the Tree of Life, made during an interview.
The gunman had entered the synagogue soon after it opened its doors on Saturday morning.
“Jews come late to services,” Diamond said. “So for a lot of people, that’s probably a good thing.”
The author of the analysis can’t imagine that someone would crack a joke during a crisis. Or she finds it easier to believe that the government would create a fake terrorist incident, including 11 faked deaths, absent of any supporting evidence.
Also suspicious was the fact that a GoFundMe campaign for victims of the shooting has surpassed the half-million dollar mark, said to indicate a profit motive. Ultimately, the conspiracy theorists claim that the Pittsburgh shooting was staged to give Congress an excuse to pass gun control legislation, and make a few people rich in the process. Which begs the question: if after countless “false flag” terror attacks the American public hasn’t yet been disarmed, wouldn’t the conspirators try something else?
Of course, the answer to this question is that there is no conspiracy; or, perhaps, that there are many conspiracies, many factions watching the American empire fall apart, many factions jockeying for position in the great crack-up. Some of which have no problem filling people’s heads with violent rhetoric, if that’s what it takes to amass political power.
There was once a strong leftist current in conspiracy theory culture. The rightward shift came, according to Mark Jacobson, when right-wing populists started smoking pot.**
“Conspiracy was about connecting dots that seemed irrationally arrayed,” Jacobson writes in Pale Horse Rider. “Religion did it one way, but pot did it another [way].” And now that more states are legalizing cannabis, “one could only expect more paranoid thinking in the future.”
I don’t know if I fully buy the cannabis-conspiracy connection — it seems a little too cute to be exactly true — but I would certainly agree that these days conspiracy theory is much more of a right-wing game. Conspiracy theories are too easily weaponized to not be part of the fascist’s arsenal.
“This is sociology 101,” says Chip Berlet. “If a popular leader, if they’re very high-up — it doesn’t matter if they’re political or they’re religious, or a movement leader — basically alleges that some group of people is conspiring against the common good and they sort of harp on that for some time, it’s only a matter of time before people get killed.” This could not be any more clear than in these two examples from the same week: both Cesar Sayoc’s hit list and Robert Bowers’ “globalist” victims were originally targets of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Articles and blog posts explaining the psychological basis of conspiracy theory beliefs are perennial news items. They usually have clever titles like “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” People are susceptible to cognitive biases and teleological thinking, the argument goes, both of which cause them to see meaningful patterns where none exist. In these stories, the conspiracy theorist is presented as the cognitively impaired other: “You’re not a kook, not like those other weirdos,” the authors seem to be saying. “We’ve proven it. With science.”
While it is true that conspiracy theory beliefs are a result of quirks in human cognition, there are also social causes that need to be factored in. Conspiracism is largely the worldview of the powerless. It expands to fill the vacuum left by a loss of power (or historical lack of power). But in the hands of a savvy political operator, conspiracy theory is just another method of control.
In this fragmented age, leaderless “lone wolf” resistance is particularly trenchant. All it requires is a weapon and an imbalanced mind — no connection with another human being is necessary, besides maybe the false sense of community offered by a Gab account. Likewise, in a time when the traditional American institutions are no longer trusted, conspiracism is a tailor-made philosophy.
This is the dark side of conspiracy culture, the conspiracy-within-the-conspiracy: while conspiracy theorists may believe they are empowered by their idiosyncratic beliefs, conspiracism is actually a measure of their powerlessness, a vehicle for their exploitation.
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 the 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 right now,” Peduto told The Washington Post. “Really?” The death penalty would do nothing for the survivors, and it wouldn’t bring back the dead—this was simply partisan bullshit coming at the most inappropriate time. “I ended the conversation pretty quickly after that.”
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 afraid. The truth, which perhaps they’d been able to avoid thinking about 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.