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October 23, 2015 9

Plumbing the Depths: Were the Umpqua Shootings an Anti-Christian Hate Crime?

On Octo­ber 1, 26-year-old stu­dent Christo­pher Harper-Mercer walked into a class­room at Umpqua Com­mu­nity Col­lege in south­west Ore­gon and opened fire, killing nine peo­ple and wound­ing another nine before killing him­self after law enforce­ment arrived and wounded him.christopher-harper-mercer-hate-crime-shooting

In the weeks since the shoot­ing, Harper-Mercer’s moti­va­tion has remained largely a mys­tery, the sub­ject of spec­u­la­tion and alle­ga­tions, thanks to the lim­ited, often ambigu­ous infor­ma­tion avail­able on the shooter.

The issue most often raised about the shoot­ings is whether they con­sti­tute an anti-Christian or anti-religious hate crime.  Pro­po­nents of this the­ory note that Harper-Mercer asked sev­eral of his vic­tims about their reli­gion before shoot­ing them, and that his lim­ited on-line foot­print sug­gests a dis­dain for orga­nized reli­gion.  On the other hand, it turns out, Harper-Mercer was angry about a great many things, some clearly more so than reli­gion.  He also had a his­tory of men­tal health and behav­ioral issues.

What moti­vated the shooter?  It seems pos­si­ble that a clear-cut answer will never emerge.  But an analy­sis of what is known so far about Harper-Mercer and the shoot­ings may offer a slightly clearer pic­ture of what hap­pened that day—and why.

Acquain­tances of Harper-Mercer inter­viewed since the shoot­ing have not revealed much about his atti­tudes towards reli­gion.  But on an on-line dat­ing pro­file, Harper-Mercer chose the options “not reli­gious” and “not reli­gious but spir­i­tual” to describe him­self.  As a prospec­tive match, he sought some­one pagan, Wic­can, or “not reli­gious, but spir­i­tual.”  On the same site, he joined groups called “doesn’t like orga­nized reli­gion,” “mag­ick and occult,” and the “left-hand path,” another occult ref­er­ence.  How­ever, to date no on-line anti-Christian or anti-religious rhetoric by Harper-Mercer has been discovered.

Accord­ing to the accounts of wit­nesses, on the day of the shoot­ing itself, Harper-Mercer walked late into his writ­ing class and fired a gun, appar­ently to get people’s atten­tion.  He fatally shot the instruc­tor, Lawrence Levine, after telling him, accord­ing to the account of one wit­ness, “I’ve been wait­ing to do this for a really long time.”

Harper-Mercer than ordered the 15 or so stu­dents onto the floor.  Accord­ing to one sur­vivor, Mathew Down­ing, he “fired a cou­ple of shots into the crowd of stu­dents in the cen­ter.”  He sub­se­quently ordered sev­eral stu­dents to stand, one at a time, and asked about their reli­gion, then shot them.  For exam­ple, the mother of one vic­tim told reporters that Harper-Mercer asked her daugh­ter, Cheyeanne Fitzger­ald, about her reli­gion, shoot­ing her in the back when she didn’t answer.

The sis­ter of one Umpqua stu­dent told NBC News shortly after the attack that Harper-Mercer asked his poten­tial vic­tims if they were Chris­t­ian.  If they said yes, he would shoot them in the head.  How­ever, if they said some­thing else, or noth­ing, “they were shot else­where in the body, usu­ally the leg.”  This state­ment was widely repeated on the Inter­net.  How­ever, the stu­dent, J. J. Vic­ari, was not actu­ally in the shooter’s class­room at the time, but in another class­room in that build­ing.  When NBC sub­se­quently inter­viewed Vic­ari him­self, he said that he never heard Harper-Mercer ask about religion—or even heard his voice at all.

The most frequently-repeated account came from the father of vic­tim Anas­ta­sia Boy­lan.  Her father told the media that Harper-Mercer asked peo­ple if they were Chris­t­ian, then said “Good, because you’re a Chris­t­ian, you’re going to see God in just about one sec­ond,” killing peo­ple who had iden­ti­fied them­selves as Christians.

How­ever, when Anas­ta­sia Boy­lan her­self was sub­se­quently inter­viewed by Good Morn­ing Amer­ica, her account was dif­fer­ent:  “He had us get up, one by one, and asked us what our reli­gions were.  The shooter said [vic­tims] would only feel pain for a cou­ple of sec­onds, and that [they] would be with God soon.  And then he shot them.”  Boylan’s descrip­tion makes it seem as if Harper-Mercer was actu­ally engag­ing in some sort of bizarre attempt to calm or give solace to the peo­ple he was about to mur­der.  He also told the stu­dents he would be join­ing them in death in just a lit­tle while.

Other sur­viv­ing wit­nesses also ques­tioned whether Harper-Mercer was “tar­get­ing Chris­tians.” Rand McGowan said, “He didn’t, really, honestly…Obviously, he was ask­ing what reli­gion, but he wasn’t really just tar­get­ing.  He was kind of just say­ing, ‘Oh, since you have a God, you’ll be join­ing him in a lit­tle bit.’  It wasn’t really like, ‘I’m tar­get­ing you and I’m going to kill you.’”

Tracy Heu, another sur­vivor, recalled that Harper-Mercer told vic­tims, “I’m going to send you to God.  You’re going to see God.”  How­ever, she did not think that Chris­tian­ity or reli­gion were a motive, not­ing that he shot peo­ple regard­less of how they responded to his ques­tion about religion.

It is not clear how many stu­dents Harper-Mercer asked about their reli­gion.  How­ever, it is clear from Downing’s detailed writ­ten account that a num­ber of stu­dents were shot or shot at with­out hav­ing been asked any­thing about their religion.

Harper-Mercer killed or wounded most of the stu­dents in the class­room (shoot­ing one vic­tim at least five times), regard­less of faith.  How­ever, one stu­dent he spared, giv­ing him an enve­lope for police that allegedly included a flash drive and doc­u­ments, includ­ing what has been described as a “manifesto.”

Weeks after the shoot­ings, author­i­ties still have not yet released any of the con­tents of this enve­lope.  How­ever, offi­cers or oth­ers with appar­ent access have leaked descrip­tions and excerpts of its con­tents to the media.  The doc­u­ment allegedly con­tains racist lan­guage, though race does not seem to have been a motive for the attack (and Harper-Mercer was from a multi-racial fam­ily).  It also allegedly con­tains lan­guage about his sex­ual frustrations—which echoes com­ments Harper-Mercer made on-line prior to the shoot­ings.  One anony­mous source told Peo­ple Mag­a­zine that the shooter wrote, “I am going to die friend­less, girl­friend­less, and a vir­gin.”  The source also said that the man­i­festo had “666” writ­ten on it and that Harper-Mercer wanted “to serve darkness”—characterizing the attack as “strictly for Satanic purposes.”

How­ever, in a sub­se­quent Peo­ple arti­cle, an appar­ently dif­fer­ent anony­mous source allegedly read parts of the man­i­festo to reporters, telling the mag­a­zine that the man­i­festo chron­i­cled Harper-Mercer’s life and his frus­tra­tions:  “no job, no life, no suc­cess.”  Accord­ing to this source, Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote, “I was hated ever since I arrived in the world.  I was always under attack.  I’ve always been the most hated per­son in the world.”

Harper-Mercer allegedly wrote in the man­i­festo about pre­vi­ous mass killers (as he did on-line, prior to the attack), claim­ing that they too had been denied every­thing they deserved and wanted.  This source quotes Harper-Mercer mak­ing ref­er­ences about demons and Hell, though the ref­er­ences sound as though they may have been more metaphor­i­cal than actu­ally Satanic.  How­ever, with­out being able to see the actual lan­guage in its true con­text, it is hard to know for sure.

So was Harper-Mercer’s deadly attack a hate crime?  Cer­tainly, Harper-Mercer was capa­ble of hatred.  The evi­dence sug­gests that he was a supremely dis­turbed and alien­ated young man, frus­trated by vir­tu­ally all aspects of his life, from being kicked out of the mil­i­tary, to being placed on aca­d­e­mic pro­ba­tion, to being unable to form con­nec­tions with other peo­ple, espe­cially women.

Hate and resent­ment, Harper-Mercer thus had in full mea­sure. But anger alone does not define a hate crime.  Was his attack directed against Chris­tians or against peo­ple with reli­gious beliefs?  The evi­dence that has so far emerged to sup­port such a propo­si­tion is not very strong.  Harper-Mercer appears to have stored up anger against soci­ety in general—and when he unleashed his deadly fury, he spared nei­ther Chris­t­ian nor non-Christian, nei­ther the reli­gious nor the agnostic.

It may well have been the act of shoot­ing and killing peo­ple, rather than shoot­ing any­one in par­tic­u­lar, that was most impor­tant to Harper-Mercer.  And while new infor­ma­tion could prompt a re-examination of the entire event, it seems quite pos­si­ble that pro­found alien­ation and resent­ment, rather than ani­mus directed specif­i­cally at Chris­tians or the reli­gious, was the most impor­tant moti­va­tion in Harper-Mercer’s mur­der­ous rampage.

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October 20, 2015 1

ISIS Promotes Murdering Jews in New Online Campaign

A banner promoting the ISIS video "Return the Terror to the Jews"

A ban­ner pro­mot­ing the ISIS video “Return the Ter­ror to the Jews”

Offi­cial media out­lets for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have released offi­cial pro­pa­ganda videos and state­ments encour­ag­ing and incit­ing vio­lence against Jews in Israel.

The pro­pa­ganda is yet another addi­tion to the cacoph­ony of online calls for mur­der­ing Jews and Israelis, which have already been prop­a­gated by Pales­tin­ian ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions, indi­vid­u­als cel­e­brat­ing and pro­mot­ing ter­ror­ism, and even main­stream Arabic-language news out­lets.

The ISIS pro­pa­ganda also serves to fur­ther demon­strate the per­va­sive­ness of anti-Semitism in ter­ror­ist ide­ol­ogy, and the way in which ter­ror­ist orga­ni­za­tions exploit pop­u­lar anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sen­ti­ment to mobi­lize and recruit sup­port­ers. A recent ADL report, “Anti-Semitism: A Pil­lar of Islamic Extrem­ist Ide­ol­ogy,” high­lights this use of anti-Semitism with exam­ples from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other ter­ror­ist organizations.

A screenshot from an ISIS video shows images of terror attacks in Israel

A screen­shot from an ISIS video shows images of ter­ror attacks in Israel

In its cur­rent cam­paign, ISIS has posted at least eight offi­cial pro­pa­ganda videos incit­ing vio­lence in Israel. The videos were posted on social media with an Arabic-language hash­tag that trans­lates as #BeheadThe­Jews; some were also posted under the English-language hash­tag #Slaughter_the_Jews. Trans­lated titles of the videos, which are instruc­tive of their con­tent, include: “Return the Ter­ror to the Jews,” “Slaugh­ter Them and Don’t Show Them Mercy,” “Ter­ror­ize the Jews, Oh Peo­ple of Beyt al Maqdis (Jerusalem),” “Mes­sage to our Peo­ple in Beyt Al Maqdis,” and “Mes­sage to the Mujahideen (fight­ers) in Beyt al Maqdis.”

Many of the videos fea­ture images of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are eas­ily rec­og­niz­able as Jew­ish because of their cloth­ing, and of Israeli sol­diers, includ­ing mul­ti­ple images of Israeli sol­diers engaged in Jew­ish rit­ual activ­ity such as eat­ing matzah and pray­ing while wear­ing phy­lac­ter­ies. They also show images and footage of attacks against Jews and Israelis, includ­ing bus bomb­ings and recent stabbings.

One of the videos, pro­duced by the media divi­sion of ISIS’s Nin­veh Province, clearly defines attack­ing Jews all over the world as fun­da­men­tal to Islamic extrem­ist goals. “Remem­ber that our war with the Jews is doc­tri­nal,” the video’s nar­ra­tor states; “it is a war between faith and dis­be­lief. There­fore, you must keep going with your fight and use all the legit­i­mate means in fight­ing them, includ­ing stab­bing and run­ning them over. Do not for­get about the explo­sive devices…” In a ref­er­ence to a Qu’ranic verse in which the entire world assists Mus­lims in killing Jews, the video’s nar­ra­tor goes on to say that, “Allah per­mit­ting, the promised day is approach­ing from which the Jews will not escape.”

A sam­pling of addi­tional quotes that encour­age vio­lence against Jews includes:

A screenshot from an ISIS video shows Israeli soldiers eating matzah, overlaid with an image of flames.

A screen­shot from one of the ISIS videos

  • “Bring back the ter­ror to the Jews with bomb­ing, burn­ing and stabbing.”
  • “Oh, you Monothe­ists in Pales­tine, to become lone wolves killing the ene­mies of God is bet­ter for you than to be with groups or par­ties that claim to be work­ing for the reli­gion of God while they serve as a bar­rier between the Muja­hedeen and Jihad.”
  • “Oh you peo­ple of Jerusalem, ter­rify the Jews.”
  • “Increase your oper­a­tions against the Jews who fed the Mus­lims all types of mis­ery and suffering.”

Some of the videos also advo­cate anti-Semitic con­spir­acy the­o­ries. “[Jews are] the mur­der­ers of the prophets and mes­sen­gers,” alleged one of the videos, which went on to accuse Jews of hav­ing “cor­rupted the faith of the Chris­tians” and “mis­led the Shi’a.”

Sev­eral of the videos bor­row footage from pre­vi­ous ISIS pro­pa­ganda pieces that threat­ened Israel. One of them, for exam­ple, fea­tures an image of a child exe­cut­ing a man that ISIS alleged was a Mossad spy. The orig­i­nal video show­ing that exe­cu­tion had gone on to sug­gest that the cur­rent chil­dren of ISIS fight­ers will go on to con­quer Israel in the future.

An image circulated online states that negotiations and elections will lead to destruction, calling instead for readers to "sacrifice our money and selves"

An image cir­cu­lated online states that nego­ti­a­tions and elec­tions will lead to destruc­tion, adding that what is needed is for read­ers to “sac­ri­fice our money and ourselves”

The ISIS pro­pa­ganda also fea­tures ban­ners and images released by Al Bat­tar Media, the same media com­pany that was active in releas­ing images call­ing for Israel’s destruc­tion last sum­mer; the cur­rent cam­paign has recy­cled some of the images from last sum­mer, such as one depict­ing ISIS fight­ers stand­ing in front of the Dome of the Rock, and has added new images as well.

In a notable shift from pre­vi­ous ISIS pro­pa­ganda on Israel, the cur­rent videos and posters are focused more on pro­mot­ing the vio­lence than on promis­ing a future ISIS vic­tory over Israel (although the lat­ter is depicted as well). This may be a result of the indi­vid­ual nature of the cur­rent vio­lence, which is not claimed by groups but, rather, is being under­taken by indi­vid­u­als inspired in part by the infor­ma­tion they find on social media. ISIS can there­fore seek to claim credit for inspir­ing future attacks and assert that it is active in the present con­flict sim­ply by encour­ag­ing addi­tional vio­lence online.

Sim­i­larly, the cur­rent cam­paign fea­tures a heavy focus on defend­ing the Al Aqsa mosque, with one video even show­ing footage of Israeli sol­diers and explo­sions in the mosque. This cor­re­lates with the excuse being used to jus­tify the cur­rent vio­lence, which stems from false alle­ga­tions of Israeli attempts to take over that mosque.

The videos and images were dis­trib­uted on Telegram, an app that ISIS now uses as a pri­mary pro­pa­ganda dis­tri­b­u­tion ser­vice, but they were also cir­cu­lated broadly on more main­stream social media sites due in part to the strong pres­ence of ISIS sup­port­ers on social media and the unfor­tu­nately wide­spread fol­low­ing of con­tent call­ing for the destruc­tion of Jews and Israel in the cur­rent cli­mate of vio­lence in Israel.

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October 15, 2015 17

Instructional Content On How To Stab Jews Spreads On Social Media

Update — 10/20/15: After alert­ing Google, Face­book and Twit­ter to the prob­lem­atic mate­r­ial cited in this blog post, all the items have been removed by those ser­vices in a prompt manner. 

As vio­lence esca­lates in Israel, con­tent has emerged across social media platforms—including YouTube, Face­book, and Twitter—not only urg­ing peo­ple to stab Jews, but pro­vid­ing instruc­tional infor­ma­tion on how to stab peo­ple and which knives to use.

The fol­low­ing is a sam­pling of Arabic-language posts ADL has iden­ti­fied in the past sev­eral days specif­i­cally pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion about how to stab vic­tims. While such con­tent is avail­able is many lan­guages, the Ara­bic lan­guage con­tent seems geared toward Ara­bic speak­ers in Israel.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is alert­ing var­i­ous social media com­pa­nies about this con­tent. ADL con­tin­ues to work with the indus­try to improve poli­cies and pro­to­cols for the removal of con­tent that trig­gers vio­lence or pro­motes big­otry, con­tent that is con­trary to the com­pa­nies’ terms of service.

ADL con­tin­ues to encour­age the pub­lic to report such con­tent. ADL Cyber-Safety Action Guide pro­vides quick and easy access to com­pany poli­cies and com­plaint forms.

  • A video fea­tur­ing two masked men demon­strat­ing sev­eral stab­bing tech­niques is avail­able on sev­eral YouTube chan­nels. The video, posted on Octo­ber 5, is listed under sev­eral titles, includ­ing “Learn how to stab a Jew.” The video is also cir­cu­lat­ing on Face­book and Twitter.YouTube stab image
  • A num­ber of Twit­ter users started post­ing a graphic last week describ­ing what type of knife should be used for stab­bing attacks in Israel. The image includes the fol­low­ing instruc­tions: “Cir­cu­late: Regard­ing the Youth in the occu­pied lands, they must use ser­rated knives in stab­bing so the air can enter the body of the tar­get, which leads to imme­di­ate death, and the destruc­tion of organs when the knife is pulled.”

“[Right side, in red] Use this”    “[Left side, in green] don’t use this”

Twitter stab image

  •  Other Twit­ter users using an Ara­bic hash­tag “Slaugh­ter­ing the Jews” posted a mes­sage that reads: “Don’t hes­i­tate in using this qual­ity (veg­etable knife) as it’s the strongest in caus­ing pain #Slaugh­ter­ingth­e­Jews.” Below is an exam­ple from Octo­ber 8.Twitter 2 stab image
  • Sev­eral Twit­ter users rec­om­mend attach­ing a cam­era to the knife to record the stab­bing in HD. For exam­ple, the tweet below from Octo­ber 5 includes an image of a GoPro cam­era attached to a knife and hash­tags that trans­late to  “West Bank is upris­ing” “Stab a sol­dier with a knife to lib­er­ate Pales­tine” and  “Intifada started.”Twitter 3 stab image
  • The fol­low­ing image posted on Face­book on Octo­ber 14 shows a dia­gram of the cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem with sug­ges­tions of areas to stab. The image was included with an Ara­bic Face­book hash­tag “Stab.”Facebook stab image.
  • The fol­low­ing image posted on Insta­gram on Octo­ber 12 reads, “When you stab, put poi­son on the knife or soak the knife in vine­gar. Stab with a screw dri­ver and insert it in the neck….stabber stab­ber stab correctly.”Instagram stab image


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