According to an FBI affidavit, while he was shooting mostly elderly worshippers at Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation on Oct. 27, Robert Bowers, 46, armed with an assault rifle and three handguns told police “I just want to kill Jews. … They’re committing genocide to my people.”
He killed 11, mostly elderly worshippers, and is now in custody.
A.C. Thompson of ProPublica, a journalist doing heroic work, was, in a sense, on the case long before it occurred. The writer, producer and on-camera narrator of a new “Frontline” documentary has been relentlessly tracking down “white nationalists” for the nonprofit news organization ProPublica, under the rubric “Documenting Hate.”
The PBS documentary series “Frontline” adapted the title for its latest documentary, “Documenting Hate: The new American Nazis.” It airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. on KTCA Channel 2 and other PBS stations. I highly recommend it.
Because of his long effort to report on hate groups, Thompson is able to introduce us to the “AtomWaffen Division,” a Florida-based alt-right neo-Nazi organization. “AtomWaffen” refers to atomic weapons, which the AtomWaffen Division hopes to acquire.
Long before the Pittsburgh massacre, Thompson and ProPublica had been reporting on the AtomWaffen movement, which encourages “lone wolf” attacks, like the Pittsburgh massacre, against Jews, racial minorities and gays.
One former AtomWaffen member, whom Thompson has interviewed, tells him that, after the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, riot (in which Neo-Nazi chanted “Jews will not replace us”), the AtomWaffen movement concluded that such public displays are counterproductive, and they have encouraged their members to “go underground” and engage in “lone wolf” acts of violence.
As far as Thompson can determine, AtomWaffen consists of only about 60 or so members and initiates who are on the path to full membership. ProPublica has found some former members who are willing to anonymously discuss how the group works.
Thompson traces AtomWaffen to its creation, in Tampa, Florida, in 2015, by a guy named Adam Russell, a national guardsman in in his early 20s.
According to the Frontline piece, one of the earliest members, an 18-year-old high school dropout named Devin Arthurs, rebelled against Russell’s ideas, killed two of his neo-Nazi roommates, and told police that the group was recruiting members and planning violent activities.
Russell was questioned by the police and, according to the film, told them the explosives in the motel room were only for powering model rockets, which convinced them to release him. But he was later convicted of possessing unregistered explosives and is in prison.
This may sound like a few crackpot losers, unlikely to do much damage, but an FBI bomb technician is invoked to remind us that the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others, acting almost alone (although one accomplice was convicted). Devin Arthurs told the authorities that a picture of McVeigh was up on the wall of the motel room where Russell and the earliest AtomWaffen cell were living.
Thompson tracks down some others who have been in the organization, most of whom tell him they are no longer active. Several suggest that AtomWaffen actively recruits within the U.S. military and hopes to use those connections to acquire serious weapons.
University of Chicago historian Kathleen Belew, who studies paramilitary organizations, tells Thompson that movements similar to AtomWaffen have often relied on military veterans: “Throughout American history, there has always been a relationship between the aftermath of warfare and revolutionary white power violence,” she said. “The American Nazi Party and the Aryan Nation were both founded by World War II veterans. The paramilitary leader of the Ku Klux Klan is a Vietnam War vet. Oklahoma bomber McVeigh was a Gulf War vet.”
Belew hastens to point out that only a statistically minuscule portion of veterans participate in movements like these, but within such movements, these veterans and their knowledge of weapons and paramilitary tactics “play an enormously important role” with their knowledge of weapons and tactics.
One of the really creepy concepts discussed in the film is called “leaderless resistance,” which is emphasized in movements like AtomWaffen. A person can be influenced by the white nationalism movement without having to become a member of an organization. In America, you don’t need an organization to acquire a weapon, or to find messages that stoke your hatred. The concept of “leaderless resistance” encourages an individual to act entirely on his own to commit mass mayhem against Jews, blacks or gays using whatever weapons he can acquire on his own and any tactics he can dream up.
Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, may not have belonged to AtomWaffen or to any organization that helped him plan his crime. He was obviously a virulent anti-Semite who “just wanted to kill Jews.” Anti-Semites don’t need much structure to find each other on the internet, or just to find sites that stoke their bias.
If you have such a hatred, if you “just want to kill Jews” or members of any other group that you hate, the doctrine of “leaderless resistance” suggests that all you need is a gun and to know the location of a synagogue or other target. But if you need a little extra help or encouragement to act on your hatred, there are networks, ever-more-easily accessed, and groups that are anxious to amplify messages of hate.
At the very end, “Documenting Hate” includes an interview with retired FBI agent Brad Orsimi, director of security for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, who says that in the aftermath of the shooting at New Light Congregation, fascist and Nazi groups have been spreading their propaganda and recruiting, right in the neighborhood near the synagogue.
Thompson says that the FBI knows that, in the period before the shooting, Bowers was communicating with neo-Nazis, one of whom had some kind of connection to AtomWaffen. He closes his documentary thus:
“What I learned from my years covering white supremacist groups is that they are many and they draw from a deep reservoir of ugliness in America. Just this month, the FBI announced that hate crimes have spiked again this year, for the third year running. This story is far from over.”