Posted at 7:24 AM on July 29, 2008
by Tim Nelson
Here's the story.
On Sunday morning, gunman Jim Adkisson killed an usher and another member of the congregation at the Tennesse Valley Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville.
Kids from the TVUU were staging a version of "Annie," a testament to the glancingly conventional nature of Unitarian Universalist worship.
Adkisson reportedly opened fire on what he thought was the local garrison of a vast left wing conspiracy to thwart his career and cut off his food stamps. Instead, he fatally interrupted a weekend musical revue.
He's been arrested and the FBI is reportedly involved, with an eye toward prosecuting the slayings as a hate crime.
In Minneapolis, the First Universalist Church in Uptown is one of the nation's oldest Unitarian Universalist congregations. It'll celebrate its 150th anniversary next year, just a year after of the state's own sesquicentennial. It's about as established as any denomination could get in these parts.
About 40 people showed up last night on the steps of a former synagogue there -- the six-pointed stars still mark the end of every pew in the sanctuary -- to mourn the dead in Tennessee.
"Today, we learned the gunman specifically targeted this congregation," summer pastor Kelli Clement told those assembled. "They were out front in their social action. It was easy to find them. It could have been us. I read the reports and heard the news and its not their sanctuary I see. It's ours." She talked to the folks gathered there about fury and compassion, too.
Compare that to another incident on the other side of the globe in the news on the same day: a trio of presumably Sunni suicide bombers killed 32 Shiites making a pilgrimage through Baghdad to the mosque commemorating Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. It's hard to argue that the Baghdad explosions weren't a sectarian act -- even if the pilgrimage started out as an ordinary act of faith.
The shootings in Knoxville Sunday may have happened in a place of worship, but it's hard to equate them to religious violence like the bombings in the Middle East, or even the Troubles in Ireland.
The shootings don't really fit conventional definitions of "hate," either: they don't have the racist dimension of the 16th Street Church bombing in 1963, or the anti-Semitic root of the attack on the Los Angeles Jewish Community Center day care center in 1999.
The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist congregation was apparently openly supportive of gay and women's rights - they had a cafe for gay teens there - but Sunday's deaths don't really have parallel in the slayings of Matthew Shepard or sexual or domestic violence, either.
In Minneapolis last night, even Clement was grasping to define what went wrong during the services in Tennesee on Sunday.
"I'm from Texas. There is a level of hatred for all things liberal, and in some parts of the country, liberal is a dirty word," she said, before the vigil started. "Maybe its a crime of ideology...We are openly, proudly liberal."
Maybe that's it.
There's reason, though, that bias crimes are set apart from ordinary, run-of-the-mill greed or evil: their motivation is based on some perceived distinction that we all agree is irrational and unacceptable to express in civilized society. The added sanctions for bias crimes are supposed to be a public expression of that approbation.
But political differences are kind of the founding principal of the American enterprise.
They may be divisive, or mistaken or heartfelt or any number of other things. But as long as they're not expressed with gunfire or a noose, politics are generally considered legitimately held belief, even in the extreme.
The shootings in Knoxville may be tragic, criminal, sinful, heartbreaking and even insane.
But are they hate?
In this case, does hate + crime = mentally ill?
I don't see how shooting a liberal because he or she is liberal is any less a hate crime than shooting a black person becuase that person is black.
That doesn't seem to be the case here though... not that I'm an expert. Talk of conspiracies to ruin his career and take away food stamps seems more like a mental illness than a hate crime. The fact that the conspiracy was a vast liberal one seems secondary.
I very much appreciate the post on this sad event. As a Unitarian Universalist, I feel some kinship with the people who were there. I can also speak from one perspective to the notion that UUs could be a targeted group for hate crime. The reality is that most people I encounter don't even know what Unitarian Universalism is about, even in the Twin Cities where there are a number of strong, large fellowships. UUs are not a class of people that is accustomed to prejudice and hate-- rather we are a group of people used to trying to explain what on earth binds us.
One of the common threads is that we are generally progressive and well-educated. The latter points to the reality that UUs are generally part of a privileged socioeconomic class. I'm sure that there are exceptions, but my experience having lived in four states is that the congregations I've seen have been almost all White, middle-to-upper class people. While we care a lot about oppression, most of us haven't been regular victims of it. While we are numerically a minority, we are by no means a historically oppressed minority.
The legal concept of "hate crime," as I understand it, is essentially about victimization of a member or members of an oppressed minority group. A crime victim who is one of a handful of people in their community with blue hair is not necessarily a victim of a hate crime because of that minority status. Being UU is certainly more significant to my identity than any wacky dye job I had in college, and I'm not trying to discount its relevance-- just to demonstrate that not every minority is oppressed. And I think that's a necessary ingredient to special protection under hate crime legislation.
I think a very important lesson in this story is that violent acts arise from real desperation. In this economy, we have a lot more desperate people in the US than we have for some time, and sadly we can probably expect more such acts. Desperate people look for scapegoats, and in this case the local UUs were it.
Being a scapegoat (or a victim of random violence) is not something one can prevent. I hope that UUs take this as a call to increase social action to reduce conditions of desperation. That would be to all our benefit.
This is easily the most offensive thing I've ever read at MPR. If you have issues with our hate crime laws, why don't you bring them up at a time when people aren't in mourning for the dead?
People died because of who they were: liberal Christians who supported gay rights. How is that NOT a hate crime?
We already know that the killer's library contained books by rightwing eliminationist authors who casually "joke" about killing liberals (open hunting season on liberals, etc.).
Your point could easily have waited a week. Posting this now is tantamount to saying you think the murder of liberals for being liberals is just another crime. I doubt that would be your opinion had the shooter gone into a public radio studio and opened fire because Rush Limbaugh had smeared NPR that day.
Your point, Tim, seems to be that there cannot be a "hate crime" against someone who chooses to be that which is hated.
But we choose to be whatever religious group we are. Some people choose to marry those of different races. There are those who insist that being gay is a choice. Is violence against those people because they are those people any less a crime of hate?
In our laws, there are many instances where the intent of the actor can influence the level of punishment. Running down a child in with a car is punished more harshly than a death caused accidentally. A premedited, planned killing is going to result in a longer prison sentence than a killing that is a crime of passion.
Targeting a group for one's killing spree based on their historic association and acceptance of a despised group is as offensive as any hate crime.
Mark and Diane's comments were helpful to me, so I thank you both. I think that Tim was trying to spur some discussion about this as a question, not really asserting that this was not a hate crime. I did say earlier that this was not a hate crime, so perhaps I'm the one who so offended Mark. If so, I'm sorry.
This was indeed a tragic event, and I hope that my comments earlier did not in any way undermine that. I can see now how they may have, and I regret that. I can also see that there are strong reasons to assert that it was in fact a hate crime. I really appreciate that this blog and comments posted to it provide learning opportunities like this.
In restrospect, I think what I perhaps should have said is that I hope that we can find constructive lessons in this story, and inspiration to continue with progressive social action. If this shooting leads to fear among UUs and other progressives, then our loss (and society's) will be made worse.
"But are they hate?"
In the context of the dictionary, yes. The guy pretty clearly 'hated'. From a legal standpoint the question seems to hinge on whether or not liberals are a protected group. A prosecutor might try to argue that the church members were targeted not for their political beliefs, but their religious beliefs. But would the courts buy it? Thats hard to say. If it went all the way to the Supremes, I'm guessing the Roberts court would not classify liberals as a protected group within the provisions of hate crime protections.
A couple of clarifications here.
First, I would be cautious about calling Unitarian Universalists "liberal Christians."
They're not just watered down Lutherans. Unitarians I know have some pretty specific ideas about Jesus Christ and his role in their lives that don't mesh with Christianity as many believers understand it.
Second, I never argued the event wasn't wrong, tragic, intentional or excusable.
Read the post.
The point is that "hatred" is usually reserved as a label for what we consider invalid distinctions between people -- race, creed, sexual preference and other rationales that aren't based in reason or fact or law. The word isn't simply a calibration of the intensity of some animus.
My question: If you label political differences (e.g., liberal vs. conservative) as "hate," are they then as shameful as racism or sexism or agism? Do we have the same moral obligation to stamp them out of civil society?
Or, to put it another way, does this mean that if you disagree with someone politically, by definition you "hate" them?
Where does the distinction lie?
The "hate" comes from the actual commission of the crime, not from the difference (in race, ideology, whatever) itself.
To commit such a crime, one has to mentally dehumanize the victim in a particular way, allowing the perpetrator to overcome the instinct to not harm another. It is this dehumanization which "hate" refers to. This need not be true hatred, in the strongest sense of the term (although it certainly can be) but merely a sense of complete moral detachment from the victim. Without at least this, though, one is very unlikely to commit the crime.
I suspect some of the sharp responses were drawn by just this ambiguity between the actual Platonic concept of Hatred and the legal one. One need not feel true Hatred toward (say) an immigrant of another race to feel somehow that they are "other", and thus when threatened (say, by a perceived threat to one's employment), the barrier to commit violence against them is sharply reduced.
It is this ambiguity which makes me uncomfortable about hate legislation in general. A perhaps more accessable example would be the subject of "hate speech". For some instances of it, it's like p0rn - "I know it when I see it". But there are cases where just stating a difference of opinion is deemed perilously close to hate speech, in the sense that such accusations are actually taken seriously. (Of course, that may not be a coincidence, but I digress...)
I think the distinction is easily drawn. In this case the victims were not personally known to the gunman who chose them as his victims because of what they believed, not because of who they were individually. Neither were the victims randomly chosen, they were clustered together as an identifiable group, unlike the victims of a spree killer who died because they were in the wrong store, mall or public area at the wrong time.
There was also a sign outside the church identifying them as gay friendly.
As for your understanding of what Unitarianism is Tim, do you really think this nutjob had a nuanced understanding of what Unitarians believe?
If this wasn't a hate crime, then the term has no meaning. And that discussion would be best saved for another time and not fresh on the heels of this tragedy.
Amanda, I took no offense at your words. I took offense at this news item post being twisted around to make it be about something other than the tragedy at hand.
The American hard right has long engaged in eliminationist rhetoric, and now they are acting out on it. When I have brought up eliminationism before, I usually get blown off as being an alarmist. Now some rightwing nut has killed people because of the eliminationist rhetoric he filled his head with, and we're being told "no, this isn't a hate crime."
How many gays, liberals and women have to be killed by authoritarian nuts before the media gives some credibility to the causality between eliminationist rhetoric and crimes against "the left"?
Sorry to go off topic, but I can't resist: It's interesting that Adkisson thinks it's the political left who want to cut off his food stamps.
I don't know if this is a hate crime or not. Adkisson definitely seems mentally imbalanced, so maybe hate doesn't fit into it at all, in any case. Maybe he's a paranoid schizophrenic. I'd think his reason for the attack is evidence of that.
Exactly my point, Joel. Wish I had the time this morning to expand a bit. The experiences I have had with a mentally ill relative remind me of his statements and make me think the shooter was just plain nuts. The mental workings of the mentally ill don't make sense to the rest of us. Sure, he hated the people he was shooting, but his process of getting there, I suspect, was not the same as your typical racist or homophobe. We shall see in the trial.
As the only self-professed actual Unitarian person in this discussion so far (not just someone who's met a few), I feel compelled to respond to Tim's attempt at clarification of our identity and beliefs above.
He said that we have "specific ideas about Jesus Christ." This is true of individuals who identify as UU, but what exactly those specific ideas are varies a great deal.
He also said that these ideas "don't mesh with Christianity as many believers understand it." The only way that statement works is if one assumes that Christian Unitarian Universalists are not "believers." It is my conviction that no one else gets to decide whether or not I am a "believer." That is a core tenet of my faith.
Tim, before you try to clarify what a faith or religious group is about, I recommend doing a bit of research, and going beyond anecdote (or a cute turn of phrase like "not just watered down Lutherans"). In this case, this is a good place to start:
"I took offense at this news item post being twisted around to make it be about something other than the tragedy at hand."
So its OK to jump to the conclusion that this guy acted based on 'eliminationist' rhetoric, but its not OK to discuss what qualifies as a hate crime?
Persons with mental illness are people first, not just defined by their illnesses. Perhaps Adkisson is a person with paranoid schizophrenia, not a paranoid schizophrenic.
Want to talk about hate? Stigma? Stereotypes?
Look back at the at first gentle coments, that this person's reasoning is most likely connected to a biological brain disorder... His behavior suggests he was untreated for that disorder or if diagnosed, his treatment was not working.
Now let's look at all the comments about him being a "nutjob", "just plain nuts", and "some right-wing nut job". Nice..
Tragic event, absolutely. Hate crime, possibly, but would be much more on the side of biological brain disorder, untreated, or mal-treated. Ever try to reason with someone who is going into a diabetic coma, or sugar overdose?
Please, if we are going to discuss things reasonably, could we refrain from terms mentioned above, to label a person suffering from a chronic illness as real as arthritis, thyroid disease, etc.? The name calling such as what is listed above, is one of the reasons people often wait years before seeking treatment. Would you call someone with a brain injury a right wing nut job?
This was a tragic event. It was an event fed by a hatred from a group that the "perp" was associated with and due to his most probable mental illness, perceived to be a threat to his own existence.
It is no more tragic for the victims and their families than it is for the "perp" and his. It just is.
Does it matter whether we call it a hate crime or something else? Why is the author of this story wondering whether this crime is hate, or sinful or tragic or whatever else he listed. If we call it a hate crime does it change the crime and the outcome somehow.
yah the guy is nuts but should have been under supervision, a watchful eye, or even under lock and key with no access to the internet. I don't quite understand the association he had made with liberals taking away his employment and his food stamps. That's the republicans fancy-to cut all the social programs that are intended to help those less fortunate-and history, recent history proves this.
Who cares what we call it. It is a horrible event that took place and should have never happened.
/Would you call someone with a brain injury a right wing nut job?/
George Bush and Tim Pawlenty have brain injuries?
I have been on the receiving end of abuse and torture from an individual with a mental disease/disorder (whatever we are calling IT today). It is hard -really difficult for me to see them with eyes of compassion. Adkisson should have been under supervision. How did he slip through the cracks? How do people not notice this man's bizarre behavior?
I know that there are people who can live in society with mental disorders/diseases. I am not talking about those people.
The issue isn't whether this is a hate crime or not. Of course murder is a hate crime, it is a pre-meditated case of murder. The legal system completely and fully accommodates this type or any type of murder. Punish the crime, and the criminal for what it is - 1st degree murder. Don't you guys realize the serious flaw in trying to further associate the murder with someone's political or philosophical persuasion? Who gets to define hate? Is it a liberal homosexual? Is it a conservative Christian? How about from a conservative Muslim point of view? Won't they all have different definitions? Is it by consensus or majority? The point is it is relative, our culture specifically defends peoples point of view in the 1st amendment. You may not like it, but their view point is protected by the constitution. Now murder on the other hand, that is another matter - it is punishable, and should be to the fullest extent.
If Adkisson was truly metnally ill, there really is little anyone could legally do to supervise him unless he had previously committed a serious crime. The freedoms granted to us by the Constitution are wonderful, but they assume sanity and fall short on dealing with the mentally ill. I wish we had good solutions to this, and I really don't have ideas on how to change things. You can't force someone into treatment or supervision, even if they are mentally ill. Many people with mental illnesses cannot make the decision to seek treatment because their illness prevents them from being rational.
Minn - 'just plain nuts' was a little over the top. Thanks for pointing that out.
"Persons with mental illness are people first, not just defined by their illnesses. Perhaps Adkisson is a person with paranoid schizophrenia, not a paranoid schizophrenic." - Lily
I realize this, Lily, it was just a figure of speech. Let's not get too deep into semantics. I am a diabetic, and call myself such, as do others. Does that mean my friends and I dehumanize myself?
If anyone who has been following this thread would like to learn about Unitarianism beyond Tim's anecdotes about a few Unitarians he knows, I recommend googling the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
I tried posting a link yesterday, but my post was either lost in cyberspace or censored. His comments showed a marked lack of understanding of the principles of Unitarian Universalism and a failure to do any journalistic research before making sweeping generalizations. It was also offensive to me that he suggested that the supposed real "believers" get to say whether or not I or any other Unitarian is really a Christian. I'm very disappointed in MPR.
/If anyone who has been following this thread would like to learn about Unitarianism beyond Tim's anecdotes about a few Unitarians he knows, I recommend googling the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations./
oooo-wheee Tim Nelson, a teaching moment! You like those.
Seems to me that the "hate crime" characterization is a sociolagist wet dream. How is ANY crime of intent (and some crimes of neglect) not accompanied by an element of hate -- even where mental illness is clearly a factor. The label of "hate crime" is just a means for categorizing some offenses are particularly "worse" because of the nature of the victim.
The last line of defense against violence is nothing other that equal or greater violence. This church can self-reflect all they want: How can the "reach out to the disenchanted?" What did they do "wrong" to this man? What can they do to not be unliked by a psychological deviant? --- But that won't stop the next nut-job at their own church, much less at another church in another state.
Jeanne Assam, please call your office.
Alternet has a good article that explores the reaction of rightwing website Free Republic's commenters to Adkisson's crime. They go from certainty that it was a Muslim shooter to making excuses for why Adkisson was so angry.
Alternet time would better spent analyzing their own pathological partisanship, rather than stirring the pot by pointing fingers at others.
But then that brings up another point...
Ever since the 2000 election, both left and right have strolled far away from politics and will into the realm of irrationality.
I am not suggesting that this incident is the result of a nation drifting toward insanity, but the nation's politics, whether it be blue or red are not what any sane person would call rational.
Of course this is a hate crime. The Tennessee congregation was targeted because of their religion. Unitarian Universalists are a minority religion. No, we are not an oppressed minority -- we don't suffer routine discrimination. But this attack puts all of us in fear that our congregation would be next. Hate crimes are not just crime, they also terrorize a whole group of people.