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Morning News Brief


So what drove a man to open fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh?


It's a question to be approached carefully. Who really knows what leads a man to take a high-powered rifle and other weapons into a house of worship and kill people who were as old as 97? He was known for exaggerated claims, and he made some threatening statements before the shooting.

He attacked Jews on social media. He connected Jews to the caravan. That's a group of migrants slowly moving toward the United States border to ask for entry into the U.S. who have been described as a grave threat by President Trump. Having made those statements, the suspect spent 20 minutes with his four weapons in the synagogue before he surrendered.

GREENE: And let's turn to NPR's Quil Lawrence now, who is in Pittsburgh. Hi there, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: So I know you've been spending time in Squirrel Hill, this neighborhood where this happened. How are people doing?

LAWRENCE: I mean, the night of the shooting, there was a lot of shock. Many of the Jewish community were in other synagogues, other temples, when the shooting happened. And they had to shelter in place. Or some of them, because it was the Jewish Sabbath, didn't have any access to their phones, didn't find out the news until later.

And then, you know, I was hearing two narratives. One was this ancient anti-Semitism, which has been around for centuries. And Jews, you know, in a weird, sad way, it makes sense to them. It's not new - but also this newer American mass shooting phenomenon and anger and resignation that it's come to their community.

GREENE: I - some people are saying that you're just seeing the best of this amazing city in a moment of tragedy like this. And I know there was an interfaith vigil held last night. Can you take us there?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, I mean, it was in this huge hall, this memorial hall auditorium, thousands of people inside and thousands more outside in the rain. I mean, I felt like - you know the famous quote, when they came for the Jews, I didn't speak up because I was a Jew - I wasn't a Jew - from the Holocaust?

I mean, this was the exact opposite of that. It was just - massive show of solidarity. There was a Baptist choir on stage singing, faith leaders from Jewish, Christian, Muslim communities, local officials. I think the biggest applause was for - actually for Mayor Bill Peduto.


BILL PEDUTO: We'll make sure that our Jewish community has the support that it needs and that the entire community comes together as one. We will eradicate any type of hate throughout this city and work for common sense laws when it comes to stop this type of violence. And we'll do it, not only because we're Pittsburgh but because we are one.


GREENE: We are one. Those are words that are going to just stay there with people I think. So I understand the shooter, it looks like he was motivated by anti-Semitic hatred. I mean, was he even on the radar of the authorities before he did this?

LAWRENCE: No. I mean, this isn't like the case in the Florida - case in Florida where there was this long rap sheet or big social media history. There were some posts on a darker corner of the Web, where people who have been driven off Facebook go to post, you know, anti-Semitic statements about Jews and refugees. And some posts reference to - referencing President Trump not being tough enough on these issues, not being anti-Semitic enough for this person.

But I mean, we don't know a whole lot about him other than he had 21 guns, including the three pistols and the assault rifle which he went into the synagogue with, and, inside of about 20 minutes, slaughtered 11 people. Most of them, as you mentioned, were older.

GREENE: NPR's Quil Lawrence in the city of Pittsburgh this morning. Quil, thank you.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.


GREENE: President Trump lost no time suggesting responses to the shooting. On Saturday he said, quote, "the results would have been far better," if the synagogue has, quote, "some kind of protection."

INSKEEP: The president also promoted the death penalty.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This was an anti...

INSKEEP: And he spoke to the Future Farmers of America convention in Indianapolis.


TRUMP: This was an anti-Semitic act. You wouldn't think this would be possible in this day and age. But we just don't seem to learn from the past.

GREENE: I want to bring in NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, there, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, David.

GREENE: So talk me through how Donald Trump is responding in the wake of, you know, yet another mass shooting.

LIASSON: Well, you heard some of his words. He made a lot of unifying comments. He called the act evil. He read some very powerful statements at a couple of events he had over the weekend. And then he went back to business as usual, which in this case, one week before Election Day, means partisan political attacks and trying to energize his base.

He even complained that the focus - at least on the pipe bomber, which was the incident that - the assassination attempt of many Democratic officials, former Democratic officials that he's attacked, that preceded the Pittsburgh shooting, had taken away...

GREENE: Right, the suspicious packages being sent to all these people, yeah.

LIASSON: Right. He complained that the focus on that had taken away from the momentum that Republicans were getting in the election. So it was a split screen.

GREENE: He literally complained that he was losing political momentum because of some of these things.

LIASSON: Yes, because of the pipe bomber - the focus of the media on the pipe bomber.

GREENE: Well, I mean, this - this is not a president who really seems to embrace the role of consoler in chief. So maybe some of what you're saying is not that surprising.

LIASSON: It's not...

GREENE: What impact do we see from that decision of his?

LIASSON: Well, it's not surprising. He doesn't see his role, as previous presidents have, as a moral leader. He doesn't seem to think his role is to soothe and heal after a violent incident like this. And this really isn't in his political repertoire. You know, words really matter. A president's words matter more than anyone else's because he has the biggest megaphone. And he has the most moral authority if he chooses to embrace it.

But these are the moments when the president has, in the past, done the worst with the public at large. His approval ratings dropped after Charlottesville and his famous comments about how both - there were good people on both sides. And the divisiveness, the kind of scorched-earth political rhetoric, the belittling and demonizing of his opponents, that really works with his base. And he even asked his supporters, at a rally over the weekend, do you want me to tone it down? Is that OK? And they all said, no.

GREENE: Well, I mean, the midterms are now eight days away. You say that he - maybe he is - his base likes what he's saying. But I mean, has - have these events changed the campaign and the whole political context here?

LIASSON: We don't know. This election has been very steady in that the trend lines have been constant. The House seems to be leaning towards the Democrats. The Senate seems to be leaning towards some Republican pickups. But now you've got a whole bunch of new things injected into the debate.

Gun control - the president said that maybe there should have been armed guards in the synagogue. The mayor of Pittsburgh, the governor of Pennsylvania said no. Maybe it will make more people wanting a check and balance on the president. It also increases the sense of chaos. People don't feel safe. What does that do to the election?

GREENE: All right, NPR's Mara Liasson. We appreciate it, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.


GREENE: All right, Brazil has elected a new president, Jair Bolsonaro. And he is from the far right.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Portuguese).

INSKEEP: Those are fireworks, celebrations outside the president elect's home in Rio de Janeiro. And those celebrations continued deep into the night after the retired army captain sailed to victory in yesterday's runoff election. He takes office on the first of January.

GREENE: And this could be a huge change of direction for Latin America's largest democracy. And NPR's Philip Reeves joins us from Rio. Hi there, Phil.


GREENE: So you have reported, among many things, that Bolsonaro is an admirer of the military dictatorship that ruled this country for just over two decades. What conclusions can we draw from this moment and this victory?

REEVES: I think, David, we can conclude that many Brazilians are prepared to overlook warnings that Bolsonaro could be a threat to democracy because they're so angry with the leftist Workers Party who governed Brazil for almost all of the last decade and a half. They're sick of corruption. They're sick of crime. And they yearn for the restoration of national pride. And I think - so that, you know, helps explain why Bolsonaro defeated the Workers Party candidate, Fernando Haddad, so comprehensively.

I should say, though, that Bolsonaro himself insists the survival of democracy isn't an issue here. Last night, again, he promised to defend the constitution. But he has set a lot of alarm bells ringing. I mean, the level of that concern was clear yesterday, when the president of Brazil's Supreme Court voted. And afterwards, he read out part of the constitution to reporters about the need for the future president to respect democracy and the rule of law.


REEVES: Yeah, it's unusual. There's another thing. Bolsonaro's got this record of making sexist and racist and homophobic remarks. And, you know, you'd think that would have been seriously damaging for him. But his supporters tend to dismiss these jokes as jokes. Or they blame it on fake news. Or they just say they're willing to overlook them because it's so important to them to have a leader who's competent and uncorrupt. For example, here's Calin Cabral (ph), a lawyer, aged 42, who I spoke to outside Bolsonaro's home in Rio last night.

CALIN CABRAL: He's really honest. He's going to do a good job. I don't believe that he has any racism. I don't believe this. I think he's a really good guy.

GREENE: OK, Phil, so there's a supporter of Bolsonaro. I mean, you say that many people are overlooking the potential threat to democracy that some of his critics see. He is saying that he's going to fight corruption. He's going to fight violent crime. A lot of Brazilians really care about those things. Does he have a plan?

REEVES: Well, he wants to allow the public to bear arms. At the moment, it's very difficult here to get a license. He also believes the police should have more leeway to use lethal force against suspects. And that's already extremely common here, especially in the poor and mostly black neighborhoods, where there's a war over the narcotics trade. Last year, there were 64,000 homicides in Brazil.

And there's an epidemic of robberies against people, against banks, drugs. And Brazilians are sick of it. And I think that's a big reason why so many voted for Bolsonaro. Last night, I visited Brazil's largest favela, a place called Rocinha. People there are very worried, as I found out when I spoke to Luis Fernando de Paola (ph), a man aged 27, who lives there.

LUIS FERNANDO DE PAOLA: I think everybody is worried about it. Most of the people are - especially the poor people, the minority.

GREENE: Well, one thing we can say is this is a big moment for Brazil after the election of a far-right leader yesterday. NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio. Phil, we appreciate it. Thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKEY INSPIRED'S "STREET DREAMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.