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October 23, 2015

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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September 1, 2015

Deadly Violence, Plots Mark Right-Wing Extremist Courtroom Dramas

Judges and juries in Kansas, California and Georgia have ruled in a trio of important criminal cases involving white supremacists, anti-government sovereign citizens, and militia groups who engaged in violence or conspiracies.

Brent Douglas Cole

Brent Douglas Cole

On Monday, August 31, a jury in Olathe, Kansas, convicted long-time white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller (also known as Frazier Glenn Cross) on capital murder, attempted murder, assault and weapons charges for his 2014 shooting attack that killed three at Jewish institutions in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.

Miller, who defended himself, attempted to argue during his trial that he was justified in killing Jews, because they were committing “genocide” against white people. After the jury read its verdict, Miller shouted “Sieg Heil,” while giving a Nazi salute.

In federal court in Sacramento, California, meanwhile, another extremist learned of his fate. Brent Douglas Cole, an adherent of the sovereign citizen movement, received a 29-year, seven-month sentence for his role in a shootout in 2014. Sovereign citizens believe that the government is illegitimate, because a conspiracy long ago subverted the original government and replaced it with a tyrannical one, and that it has no authority over them.

In June 214, a Bureau of Land Management ranger discovered Cole had set up a campsite on public land and had a motorcycle at the campsite that had been reported stolen. When the ranger and a California Highway Patrol officer attempted to impound that motorcycle, as well as one with expired tags, Cole confronted the officers. When one attempted to place handcuffs on Cole, the sovereign citizen opened fire on the officers, injuring both of them, before subsequently giving himself up. He was convicted in February 2015 of assault on a federal officer which inflicted bodily injury and other charges.

Finally, a federal judge in Atlanta, Georgia, sentenced three members of a militia group to prison after they pleaded guilty to conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction. Brian Cannon, Terry Peace and Cory Williamson were members of a north Georgia militia cell that plotted terrorist attacks against the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other government targets, hoping that the government would over-react and, in turn, cause militia groups around the country to rise up in arms.

After an associate of the three men alerted the FBI to the plotters’ intentions, the FBI set up a sting operation. After Peace told the informant that he needed thermite charges and pipe bombs, the informant offered to get the explosives for him. In February 2014, FBI agents arrested the trio of militiamen as the received the (inert) explosive devices from the informant. Their would-be revolution was thwarted.

In many respects, these three incidents collectively highlight the major dangers coming from the extreme right in the 21st Century. Miller engaged in a deadly attack directed against Jews, a perceived “racial enemy.” The shooting spree presaged the even more deadly attack against African-Americans by Dylann Storm Roof in June 2015. Cole engaged in unplanned, spontaneous violence against law enforcement officers—one of the major threats posed by the sovereign citizen movement. And the militiamen in North Georgia engaged in a conspiracy to attack government targets; just the latest in a long series of such plots and conspiracies stemming from the militia movement.

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August 26, 2015

Judge Thwarts Anti-Semitic Killer’s Attempt At Show Trial

As opening statements and testimony began this week in Olathe, Kansas, in the murder trial of white supremacist Frazier Glenn Miller (also known as Frazier Glenn Cross), the defense strategy of the former Klansman—who is representing himself—became clear.

Frazier Glenn Miller mugshot

Frazier Glenn Miller mugshot

Miller, who has admitted committing a shooting spree at two Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in April 2014 that killed three people, including one child, indicated his intentions with his opening statements on August 24. Miller asserted to the jury that the murders were justified, describing his actions that day as “well-intentioned” and claiming that he had “good, moral reasons” for the slayings.

These statements echoed earlier remarks by Miller before the trial that he would attempt a “necessity” defense, claiming that the shootings were needed to halt the “Jewish genocide of the white race.” Though Miller had admitted that his intentions were to shoot Jews, none of the victims he killed at the Jewish institutions turned out to be Jewish.

Miller told the jury that white people “have a right to survive” and the right to preserve our heritage…and a safe future for white children.” This was a reference to the “14 Words,” a popular white supremacist slogan: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” It refers to the widespread white supremacist belief that the white race is threatened with extinction because of a rising tide of non-white peoples who are controlled and manipulated by Jews.

However, Miller did not get far in his effort at an anti-Semitic show trial before Judge Kelly Ryan stopped him. Judge Ryan had earlier ruled that Miller could not introduce his anti-Semitic conspiracy theories into the guilt phase of the trial, which was to determine whether a crime had been committed, not why. The judge said that Miller could make such arguments during the penalty phase of the trial, if he were convicted.

As witnesses began to testify, Miller found other ways to introduce his anti-Semitic views, such as bringing certain books to court with him. At one point he had a copy of his own, self-printed autobiography, A White Man Speaks Out, displayed on the defense table. Another time during the trial he held up a book for people to see: They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby, an anti-Israel book written by Paul Findley, a long-time anti-Israel activist, in 1985.

Miller was a prominent white supremacist in the 1970s and 1980s, at one point heading a large Ku Klux Klan group, but the white supremacist movement ostracized him for providing testimony in a criminal case against other white supremacists. Miller has spent most of the past 15 years trying to get back in the graces of the movement, with little success. His shooting spree was apparently a final attempt.

Miller’s Overland Park attack was only one of a number of deadly shooting sprees by white supremacists in recent years. These and other murders have made white supremacists the most deadly extremist movement in the country, as detailed in ADL’s recent report, With Hate in their Hearts: The State of White Supremacy in the United States.

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