FRANKFORT, Ky. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday the nation’s political rhetoric “needs to be ratcheted down” in the aftermath of the massacre of 11 Jewish people at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the death of two black shoppers at a Kroger store in suburban Louisville last week.
In both tragedies, police investigators said, the shooters were motivated by hateful sentiments.
“If there is such a thing as a hate crime, we saw it at Kroger and we saw it in the synagogue again in Pittsburgh,” said Republican McConnell. “Horrible, criminal acts.”
The gunman at the suburban Kroger’s store tried unsuccessfully to enter a predominantly black church minutes before shooting to death two black people in the nearby supermarket on Wednesday, police said. A witness told police he heard the shooter, identified as Gregory Bush, make a racist remark during the episode.
The Pittsburgh gunman told law enforcement officers he wanted to kill Jews when he opened fire on worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue during a Saturday morning Sabbath service. In addition to the dead, several people were wounded, including four officers who confronted the shooter as he left the synagogue in Pittsburgh’s upscale Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
It was considered the deadliest attack on Jewish people in U.S. history.
Police wounded and captured the gunman, identified as Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, and charged him with 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder and 11 counts of obstruction of religious beliefs resulting in death. He appeared in court Monday in a wheelchair, his hands and feet shackled and displaying no emotion.
President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, plan to visit Pittsburgh Tuesday to express the nation’s grief. He has condemned the killings as “a chilling act of mass murder, an act of hatred and above all, an act of evil. We all have a duty to confront anti-Semitism in all its forms.”
McConnell, home in Kentucky to address the conservative Federalist Society, also condemned the violence. He told reporters after his speech the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the crimes committed by the Kroger and synagogue shooters.
McConnell said “it’s hard to know” if the heightened political rhetoric in the Trump era and during fiercely contested midterm elections are an impetus for violent hate crimes.
“The political rhetoric is always pretty hot before an election,” he said. “But I think the whole tone in the country right now needs to be ratcheted down, and these horrible, criminal acts only underscore the need for all of us to dial it back to a more respectful place.”
But when a reporter asked the Senate president if Trump’s off-the-cuff comments on Twitter and at his campaign rallies may have contributed to the climate of disrespect, McConnell walked away without answering.
Trump, in a Monday tweet, blamed the news media for inciting “anger and outrage” with biased reporting.
Ronnie Ellis is the CNHI state reporter in Kentucky. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.