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  • Beatriz Gutierrez

Synagogue shooting: active shooters and worship houses as soft targets.

Year 3 - Week 45

ISSN 2603 - 9931

No house of worship, independently of its confession, is exempt from crime and violence. Religion, commonly included in the constitutive setlist of identity, is probably one of the most common triggering factors for violence, opposing the “us” against “they”. Cases as Oak Tree Sikh temple attack in 2012, where Wade Michael gunned down six people and wounded another four, remain present in our memory. The Neve Shalom synagogue terrorist attack, the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in Hebron by an Israeli settler, al-Radwa mosque Islamic State attack or the Texan church of Sutherland Springs active shooting incident were other infamous cases during the last three decades. Insider threats, ideologically motivated strangers and random terrorist might be potential attackers to one of the most vulnerable soft targets, those dedicated to the cultivation of faith.

One of the last attacks took place last October 27th at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue, where eleven people were killed and more than thirty were injured.

The about twenty people participating at Sabbath service and the early comers to the rest of the day ones were starting the first morning prayers when the hell broke loose. At 9:54 emergency dispatchers began receiving 911 calls from the Synagogue with the notification of an active shooter in the building. One of the caller said he was hidden in a storage room in the third floor, there was gunfire outside and he could see at least one person down. Mr. Charney, 90, could think in only two things after taking cover: “keep your mouth shut and don’t breathe”. The active shooter had been going from room to room shooting people and then moving away to the next room. When the first police officers arrived at 10 a.m. –with a gap of response of just 6 minutes from the first incident notifications- the gunman turned fired to them, and police officers reported to be under fire by automatic weapons. Until 10:55 the SWAT could enter into the synagogue, the shooter barricaded himself in the third floor while he finished off anyone at sight. Minutes later the police negotiators stablished contact with the attacker, even though there were still shots going off, but it wasn’t until 11:08 when he surrendered. More than one hour of horror for the survivor congregants.

The active shooter, Robert Bowers, had a previous record of extremist anti-Semitic participation on social networks as Gab, alleging he wanted to kill all Jews because they were committing genocide against his people, as testified one of the SWAT members who neutralized the threat1. The morning of Saturday 27, Bowers took an assault rifle AR15 and three handguns and went on a rampage shooting against his declared object of hate, a Jewish community in Pittsburgh. Bowers had legally registered to his name 21 guns, but he didn’t have any criminal record except one traffic violation from 2015. Nothing indicated a disturbed or radical personality but his statements in Gab platform against Jewish and criticizing Donald Trump as a globalist and not a nationalist. Without further details about his personality traits it is difficult to define one psychological category to classify him, but his statements on Gab, the planning on weapons acquisition, leaking of his violent plan, the clear selection of victims and execution of the attack, including barricading himself after finishing off the victims he found in the third floor, and pleading himself not guilty during the trial, could make him fit into the narcissistic pseudocommando category.

Security of houses of worship includes many aspects, such as the safety of its members and visitants, the preservation of the religious assets and information, or management of emergencies, natural disasters or terrorism, and this planning clashes frequently with the preservation of the institutions spirit of retreat.

Nevertheless, some security measures might be implemented without disrupting prayer and services. Physical security as metal detectors on the entrances: it may look as a drastic measure, but it prevented a massacre in an Alexandria (Egypt) church in the Palms Sunday of 2017. A Welcome committee is not properly a security measure but ensures a first point for detecting suspicious behavior and non-regular members of the community. Measures will greatly vary depending on the size, location and budget availability of the institution, but security awareness is always a must have for both religious leaders and their congregations. The ASIS Cultural Properties Council and the Houses of Worship Committee proposes three areas to focus on, interior security (access control measures, CCTV surveillance and alarm system, preventive measures on doors and windows, etc.), exterior security (perimeter protection and CPTED measures when possible, monitoring of hiding places and equipment vulnerabilities, protection of perimeter against vehicle attacks with different overlapping fences –wall, trees, benches, etc.-) and procedural and best practices (to adhere to a security plan, foster relationships with local law enforcement, to elaborate an emergency plan including lockdown areas, shelters, location of first aid kits, defined zonification for medical emergencies and in large events an ambulance on the facilities, emergencies communication crisis including crisis management and media protocols, etc.) 2.

But something to stress in a higher detail is how to get the congregants ready for this kind of violent incidents. If we attend to the record of the attack, some of the victims saved their life thanks to their rapid reaction: some of them first run, then hid, and then they called the police. One of the rabbis even managed to evacuate the building and look for help from the outside. These aspects fall onto the category of management more than prevention, and they are not automatic. Situational and security awareness are trained capabilities, there is a whole process of training until they are internalized. Probably the fact of being Jewish –stereotypes apart- had something to do in the survivors’ mindsets and their quick reaction. Probably too, of happening in an European church the number of victims would have been much higher: attacks on churches are highly infrequent, and even more infrequent are active shooting incidents. A case such as Bataclan was also highly improbable and it happened in the heart of Europe, so statistics are not proof enough. Moreover, the last two more important attacks on House of Worship in the US, both of them active shooting incidents, weren’t of terrorist nature, but a family vengeance carried against the whole religious community (Sutherland Springs, 2017), and a hatred motivated attack against Jewish. Family issues and hate crimes raise much more the probabilities if compared with terrorism. Probably of happening in Europe we might change the weapon of choice to choose hinting shotguns or knives. But the truth is we still should change too our situational and security awareness mindset.

1 Robertson, C. (2017) Quiet Day at a Pittsburgh Synagogue became a battle to survive. The New York Times, October 28, 2018. LINK.

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