Imagined Threats: Demographic Conspiracy Theories, Antisemitism, and the Legacy of the 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

October 26, 2023

Imagined Threats: Demographic Conspiracy Theories, Antisemitism, And The Legacy Of The 2018 Pittsburgh Synagogue Attack

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On 2 August 2023, a federal jury sentenced Robert Gregory Bowers to death for committing the deadliest antisemitic attack in the history of the United States. Five years earlier, on 27 October 2018, he entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on worshippers who had gathered to celebrate Shabbat, one of the most important ritual observances in Judaism. Eleven people were killed and seven more injured. While in custody, Bowers reportedly expressed demographic conspiracy beliefs to explain his act. These narratives claim that ethnic, religious or national groups are under threat of eradication by outsiders due to demographic changes resulting from plots instigated by diverse sets of actors.

This report examines the ideological underpinnings of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and its long-term impact on the extreme right five years later. It does so by delving into the key narratives that motivated Bowers’ act and assessing their influence on subsequent attacks and plots. It then investigates the ways in which the attack and the attacker continue to be referenced and glorified in extreme-right communities online.

Key Findings

This report traces the history of demographic conspiracy theories in the far right in the West back to the 19th and early 20th centuries, when French discourses of “replacement” resonated with fears of miscegenation in the United States. These discourses shaped alternately the figures of Jews, Muslims, immigrants and progressive forces as racialised collectives plotting the eradication of White people and/or Western cultures. Over a number of years, these discursive trends interlaced and merged to produce labelled demographic conspiracy theories, which are known today under various names such as the “White Genocide” and the “Great Replacement” theories.

An analysis of Bowers’ activity on the social media platform Gab highlights the role demographic conspiracy theories played in Bowers’ interpretations and representations of social realities. These narratives helped shape the image of Jews as enablers of an alleged invasion of migrants endangering the future of White people.

In the context of White supremacist attacks, Bowers’ influence is linked to broader conspiracy beliefs that view the alleged struggle for the survival of the “White race” against concerted annihilation attempts as central. Other attackers who cited Bowers as a role model displayed various demographic conspiracy beliefs, picked different targets, but praised one another as committed “ethno-soldiers” sacrificing themselves for the cause of preserving the “White race.”

Despite his relatively modest popularity, Bowers remains regularly commemorated and glorified within extreme-right communities online five years later. “Screw your optics, I’m going in”, his last words on Gab, turned into a popular slogan used as a catchphrase to incite violence. Bowers was also introduced into militant accelerationists’ pantheon of “saints” and was regularly promoted as a holy figure within these online communities.